Like the recent television remake of Fail Safe, Deterrence feels like a Cold War relic even though it’s set in 2008.

Shot on a single set, and dependant on dialogue over action, Deterrence has the claustrophobic feel of a filmed play. This conscious artificiality is carefully calculated by writer-director Rod Lurie, who has a big point to make and doesn’t want it overshadowed by jingoistic Top Gun antics.

President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak), a former vice president who was elevated when his popular predecessor died, is in the midst of a dog-eat-dog election campaign. Along with his press secretary (Timothy Hutton) and policy adviser (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a television cameraman and various Secret Service agents, Emerson is trapped in a small-town Colorado diner by a snowstorm.

Of course, something major happens: Saddam Hussein’s son leads another invasion of Kuwait, easily rolling over United Nations troops. With missiles readied for launch on Western allies, and negotiations crumbling, the nuclear card is placed on the table.

Deterrence unfolds as a morality play where the decisions made in this all-American microcosm will have global ramifications. Lurie knows how to create tension as this once-friendly atmosphere – where locals are thrilled by their proximity to power – becomes increasingly filled by the ego of a man determined to be taken seriously.

With everything else stripped away, the film becomes an actor’s showcase, particularly for Kevin Pollak. Could this intelligent, unimposing man, with his easygoing, eager-to-please manner, actually start a nuclear war? Pollak’s eerily familiar mix of strength and hubris makes that a viable question.

Rod Lurie’s position is decidedly anti-nuclear, yet he asserts that decades of intelligence gathering and millions of dollars invested makes for the very real possibility of another Hiroshima. After all, we’ve still got the technology and a very human hand on the detonator.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at

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