Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kevin Pollack, Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Clotilde Courau, Sean Astin
Director:  Rod Lurie
Audio:  Dolby Digital Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Commentary Track
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  August 29, 2000

Film ***1/2

Deterrence is a modestly crafted, yet superbly successful political nail-biter of a film.  With a terrific cast in top form, a taut pace and sense of direction, and a script that manages to cover all the necessary bases under an enormous weight of time pressure, this movie reminds us that nuclear war, which is always just a push of the proverbial button away, is still something to be feared.

The story takes place in the pre-election months of 2008.  The presidential incumbent, Walter Emerson (Pollack) gets stranded by a blizzard in a little diner in Aztec, Colorado during his campaigning, along with a few Secret Service men and two of his top aides, Marshall Thompson (Hutton) and Gayle Redford (Ralph).  While he is there, a major world crisis strikes:  Saddam Hussein’s son and successor in power in Iraq has re-invaded Kuwait.  His forces have overrun and slaughtered the U.S. peacekeeping troops in place there under United Nations orders.  With 80% of our country’s troops deployed around Japan to curtail an impending Chinese military threat, there is no chance to deal with Iraq via conventional warfare—a fact that Hussein was counting on in his strategy.

The president therefore makes the decision that will shock the world and possibly alter the course of history:  unless Iraq withdraws completely, and Hussein turns himself in to U.N. authorities, Emerson will authorize the deliverance of a nuclear weapon upon the city of Baghdad.  He gives a time limit:  one hour, twenty minutes—enough time for Hussein to accept the terms, but presumably, not enough time for Iraq to ready her chemical weapons.  The ultimate global chess match has just begun.

This time limit provides the film with an even greater sense of urgency than it might have had.  Ordinarily, you would expect a movie dealing with the subject of nuclear war to take its time, hear every possible opinion, let the pros and cons be weighed carefully with plenty of moral deliberation, and so on.  To be sure, the opinions come through, but never in a way that allows characters time to climb on soapboxes.  The movie grants the audience all the time in the world to discuss these matters afterwards, but for now, the clock is ticking, and events are proceeding more from gut instincts rather than moral certainties.

The drama escalates when Iraq makes the announcement the world has feared for years:  that they, too, have nuclear capabilities, and a willingness to use them.  If American war planes enter Iraqi airspace, they will launch a counter attack:  23 missiles aimed not only at major American cities, but those of her allies as well.  The pressure mounts on Emerson to back down.  Can he?  Will he?  Should he?  The situation grows even more interesting when Iraq makes a peace proposal:  if America calls off the strike, they will disarm their nuclear weapons and agree to freeze their oil prices, thus making energy crises a thing of the past.  The stipulation:  they will not withdraw from Kuwait. 

Complicating the matter is Emerson’s fragile position as president.  We learn over the course of the story that he was not elected, but rather, a third string party who found himself in the office after a certain series of events.  We learn also that he is Jewish, which adds an even greater element of complication to his delicate Middle East negotiations.  Indeed, his heritage could turn an already grim war into a full scale jihad.

That’s as far as I want to go storywise, but needless to say, the tension and urgency only grow from there, as the countdown to the biggest event in world history runs further and further down.  The movie plays out so well, you feel like the ending hasn’t been written yet while you watch it.  Anything is possible.  And chances are, you’re not going to predict how the finale will play out.

Rod Lurie is a one-time film critic making his feature film debut as a writer and director with this movie.  Although made on a budget of less than a million dollars, and really featuring only a single location (TV screens and phone communications lend the illusions of other places), he has managed to turn out an impressive debut; one that is thoughtful and effective, opting for substance over style and content over technique.  He has assembled an impressive cast, but most of the praise belongs to Kevin Pollack. 

I’ve been a long time fan of Pollack as a both a comedian and an actor, and he proves here the ability to handle the weight of an important and heavy drama.  He is completely believable as the president:  a man who is able to walk that tight line of determination and confidence despite a rapidly growing internal conflict raging inside.  Most of his moments in the crisis are stormy, to say the least, but the man’s true spirit shows through during one quiet phone call to his family—a beautifully emotional scene. “Don’t do it,” his wife pleads.  “History will never forgive us.”  Under the duress of impending nuclear war, neither his wife nor his child can even answer back when he tearfully says he loves them. 

In the end, Deterrence asks us to think about the unthinkable.  You can’t help but consider the way the situation plays out, and wonder:  under what circumstances DO we actually use these weapons of mass destruction?  Is there ever a right time?  And when Emerson is faced with massive retaliation, what should he do?  Proceeding or withdrawing each has its own dire consequences. 

The title, ironically, refers to the fragile but desperately clung-to principle that the reason America and other nuclear powers harbor so many of these terrifying weapons is to PREVENT a situation from arising where we’d actually have to use them.  It’s a rather insane form of reasoning that has somehow worked for the world since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We can only hope it continues to work, or events like those depicted in Deterrence may not be so far-fetched.

Video **1/2

Though an anamorphic widescreen transfer, this is not one of Paramount’s better offerings in terms of visual quality.  For starters, the print is in much worse shape than you’d expect for a film that just came out this year.  Scratches and spots are quite noticeable, and at least one bad looking splice cut exists along the way.  If this represents the best available source material, somebody has a lot of explaining to do.  As for the rest of the transfer, colors are generally solid and bright, but exhibit many instances of bleeding.  Images are a tad softer than what DVD fans are accustomed to as well:  edges are often fuzzy and lack good definition. The framing even seems a bit off from time to time, especially during the newscast scenes where printed information at the bottom of the screen seem cut in half by the black border—an effect I have a hard time believing was an intentional one.  Apart from these complaints, I noticed nothing that I would attribute to compression on this single layered disc—there is no grain, no shimmer, and no chroma noise—but the overall results, though perfectly watchable, are a bit unsatisfactory.

Audio *1/2

This Dolby Surround mix is one of the thinnest sounding audio mixes I’ve heard.  The film is mostly dialogue, which is always forward and center, yet sounds curiously at times like a simple analog tape recording.  The rear channels and subwoofer don’t seem to come into play at all.  The dynamic range is very limited, and overall, I found the audio recorded so lowly that I had to crank my receiver up a good 5 clicks higher than normal so as not to miss anything.  Amusingly enough, the commentary track is recorded at a higher volume than the film’s audio track!

Features **1/2

The disc contains a trailer and a commentary track with writer/director Lurie, which is a very good listen.  Not only is he a terrific speaker, but he ascribes to the belief that DVD commentaries can be a useful tool to those who really want to study film.  As such, he focuses on both what he thought worked well in the film, as well as what he would have liked to have done differently, and how.  He delves into his thought processes in regards to his script, direction and scene construction, with attention to why certain shots were constructed in a certain way.  He even addresses the wildly varying critical reviews of his movie.  His only pauses are deliberate ones, where he’ll ask the viewer to note a certain piece of dialogue or musical cue, then pick up the discussion of it afterward.  An informative, interesting, and enjoyable listen all around.


Deterrence is a terrific, taut, smart political thriller, one that creates and maintains a wonderful sense of desperation and countdown and effectively deals with the grim moral issues of its subject matter, but in a way that doesn’t interrupt the pace or derail the tension.  Most importantly, it’s a smart film that will leave you thinking about what you saw long afterwards.  Though not quite a banner DVD release from Paramount, the film and excellent commentary track make this a disc worth picking up.