'Deterrence' only adds to the perplexity of politics

Politics is in the air, and at the movies, too. "Deterrence" takes on volatile issues in the folksy setting of a snowbound Colorado diner.

That's where Walter Emerson, fighting to remain president of the United States in the 2008 election, is stranded during a campaign trip. A few hours of downtime might seem like a relaxing prospect, but problems soon arrive. Asia is in a state of crisis, and now Iraq has invaded Kuwait, touching off an emergency recalling the Persian Gulf war of 1990 - only this time the Iraqi dictator has lethal missiles aimed directly at American allies, and there's every chance he'll fire them if provoked.

Emerson has only moments to make his decision: Should he unleash his nuclear arsenal or rely on conventional weapons and diplomacy? Situations don't come more suspenseful, and writer-director Rod Lurie piles on more complications for good measure. Emerson became president only four months before when his predecessor died; he's Jewish, which causes some - including the Iraqi leader - to question his objectivity in dealing with an Arab antagonist.

The movie's isolated setting allows Lurie to explore international conflict from a high-tech perspective, as Emerson communicates with far-flung advisers, and a just-folks perspective, as everyday people watch these explosive circumstances unfold in the eatery. "Deterrence" has gripping ingredients, but several flaws. I'll let the largest of these pass without comment, since disclosing it - a gaping hole in the plot's logic - would give away the ending. The others are bad enough. For one, the setting is so conspicuously cramped that it makes the story feel contrived.

More important, the movie's political views are confused. Emerson "stands tall" in ways that sharply divide the people around him. The film presents this in a manner suggesting that he's a hero - yet in a public statement about the picture, director Lurie calls him a villain scarred by hypocrisy and racism. As a former film critic, Lurie presumably knows how to communicate ideas, but there's an unbridgeable gap between the movie he thinks he's made and the movie he's actually made.

Audiences are likely to ignore this film, on the reasonable ground that international affairs are complicated enough without movies adding to the perplexity.

* Rated R; contains vulgar language and violence.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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