Deterrence (1998)


By Todd R. Ramlow

I'm Not Your Eva Braun

Deterrence, Rod Lurie’s directorial debut, two years in the works, repeats the many overworked cliches of the nuclear paranoia pics of the early ‘80s, but comes nowhere near the achievement of kiddie classics like War Games, Fail Safe, The Longest Day, or even the melodramatic made-for-TV event, The Day After. Like War Games, Deterrence metaphorizes nuclear war as game playing, specifically chess (for way too obvious reasons) and billiards (“it’s all angles”). What made War Games even relatively successful is the fact that it was embedded in the MAD-frenzied depths (Mutually Assured Destruction, in case you’ve forgotten) of the Cold War, when global nuclear war was, seemingly, a very distinct possibility. Today — though there has been some concern over the past few years about emerging nuclear powers in the Third World and the possibility of madmen holding the world ransom with nuclear weaponry — the pulverize-the-world threat has hardly materialized. In a world marked by increasing transnational corporatization, electronic capital, and flexible models of business and governmentality, as well as the very real threat of biological and chemical weaponry, and increasingly sophisticated conventional weapons, nuclear paranoia seems quaint and even outdated. Indeed, Deterrence feels as out of place and time as its lame attempts to address questions of morality, intolerance, and global race relations are totally whacked-out. Yet it is precisely on the continuing relevance and presence of this paranoia that Lurie’s film banks as it tries to revitalize a cultural panic over nuclear war.

Searching the Internet Movie Database for production details on Deterrence, I ran across two films: Lurie’s and one titled Nuclear Addiction: Dr. Rosalie Bertell on the Cost of Deterrence. Unfortunately, there is essentially no information for this latter film, even though, I am sure, it is the much more entertaining of the two, whatever its actual genre (the title suggests either a documentary or some sort of parody, at least to me). What this other film’s title creepily invokes is exactly what Deterrence seems to be suffering — nuclear addiction. In a post-Cold War global economy, what is to be done with America’s swollen military-industrial complex, based, as it has been, on anxieties and obsessions concerning nuclear proliferation? Deterrence‘s answer is to reject the very question. The film asserts that while we might be living in a post-Cold War world, we are anything but living in a post-nuclear war world. In many ways Deterrence is primarily an apologia for increased military contracting and spending. In another scary case of life imitating art imitating life (or something like that), in the past year there has been much grousing from the Pentagon that America’s fleet of nuclear submarines is outdated and well short of the number needed to effectively police the oceans of the world, protecting it against “rogue states” or emergent nuclear powers which, of course, calls for increased spending on nuclear technology. Perhaps Deterrence is not as outdated as it feels.

The story is quite simple. The year is 2007, and incumbent President Emerson (Kevin Pollak) is in the midst of a presidential election. It seems Emerson took over the Presidency when his predecessor resigned (we never find out why), and the film goes to great lengths to establish that he has not been popularly elected, by questioning his moral authority to lead a people who haven’t chosen him. Campaigning in Colorado in the middle of a blizzard, Emerson and his entourage become snow-bound in a little roadside cafe near Colorado Springs and NORAD. Interred at the cafe with President Emerson are his chief advisor Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton) and national security advisor Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph), as well as a dreamy-eyed French-Canadian waitress named Katie (Clotilde Coureau), the African-American proprietor Harvey (Badja Djola), the racist, bigoted and homophobic redneck Ralphie (Sean Astin), yuppie power couple Taylor and Lizzie Woods (Kathryn Morris and Michael Mantell), and various Presidential hangers-on and media hounds.

While stuck at the cafe, Emerson gets the news that Iraq has, again, invaded Kuwait and is on the move towards Saudi Arabia. With trouble already brewing in North Korea and between Japan and China, it seems the U.S. military is spread thin and without necessary resources in the Gulf to repel this assault. What to do, what to do…. By God, threaten to drop a megaton nuclear bomb on Baghdad if Iraq doesn’t back out of Kuwait and lay down their arms. What follows is a pretty tired game of nuclear escalation which eventually ends with both the U.S. and Iraq simultaneously launching nuclear missiles at each other (it seems Iraq has acquired nuclear capabilities from France in the recent past); and while Baghdad is obliterated, all of Iraq’s weapons reach their marks, but fail to detonate. I won’t ruin the surprise of precisely why the bombs don’t go off for those of you who might actually still be thinking about seeing Deterrence, but, suffice it to say, the governmental conspiracy theory answer to this question is as lame as the rest of the film.

What is most infuriating about Deterrence is its attempt to raise serious questions of difference and intolerance. Redneck Ralphie explains to President Emerson how he and a buddy, realizing they should watch their mouths in a PC culture, have devised a code by which “fags” are “watermelons,” “blacks” are “Texans,” and “spics” are “truckers.” And what about Arabs? Well, they’re just called by that most run-of-the-mill racist epithet, “sand niggers.” While the film tries to distance itself from Ralphie’s prejudice against Arabs, it replicates his racist perceptions in its portrayal of Iraqis as crazy, obsessive Islamic fundamentalists filled with hate. The Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. (Uzi Gal) abruptly breaks off negotiations with President Emerson, asserting that he “won’t negotiate with a Jew.” Faced with such inscrutable racism and religious determination, it seems the President has little choice but to vaporize the capital city of Baghdad.

The few moments of enjoyment in Deterrence come from ridiculous and unintentionally funny lines delivered at the most unlikely moments. When Emerson seeks a little reassurance from his wife that his decision to nuke Iraq is just, or even supportable, the First Lady refuses to capitulate, remarking, “I’m not your Eva Braun.” In their second satellite phone negotiation, the Iraqi ambassador threatens President Emerson, stating, “We have the oil, we have the power,” to which Emerson replies, “I have the match,” and promptly hangs up. Really, who could ever write such lines, much less deliver them? Clearly, Lurie is no better a writer than he is a director. Even these inadvertently amusing clunkers can’t save the film. Its final disappointment is that it isn’t even bad enough to be worth the price of admission. As film critic at KABC radio, Lurie has previously been one of the most hated men in Hollywood (famously, Whoopi Goldberg called him a “cunt and a motherfucker” when he suggested that she stop playing domestics), and this film should give his many detractors plenty of fuel for their fires. Indeed, the cost of Deterrence‘s nuclear addiction might very well be (hopefully) only and entirely a matter of Lurie’s career.

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