It's a snowy night in the middle of Colorado, early in the election year of 2008. A blizzard forces U.S. President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak), in the middle of campaigning for re-election, to take refuge in a roadside diner ... just as an international crisis hits the colloquial fan, courtesy of Iraqi dictator Uday Hussein (Saddam's son). Working with only two advisors (Timothy Hutton and Sheryl Lee Ralph), a batch of telephones and a TV news crew, Emerson issues an nuclear ultimatum to Baghdad: Back down or be blown up.
Rod Lurie's debut feature film, "Deterrence," is a one-act/one-set drama that aspires to the tension and topicality of the recently remade "Fail Safe" -- but that's stretching a comparison. At best, "Deterrence" is the kind of hypothetical exercise that current-events teachers present to high-school students to provoke discussions; at worst, it never amounts to more than a juvenile game of "what if?"
What if our first Jewish commander-in-chief -- who came into office without being elected, having been vice president when a popular president died -- had to face up to Middle Eastern foes? What if he could actually act alone, without his hands tied by Congress? How far would a politician go to establish his toughness in the midst of an election year?
These are all potentially dramatic situations, but Lurie, a former film critic for Los Angeles magazine (his most famous pronouncement may have been a blurb calling "City Slickers 2" the best sequel since "The Godfather Part II'), has loaded his plot with so many coincidences, red herrings and catches that any claims to relevance that don't slip away on their own are given a finishing blow by a gimmicky trick of a climax.
After a promising credit sequence that breathlessly sets up the international crises, "Deterrence" becomes a talky, stage-bound exercise in cliché. The actors in this microcosm do their best to overcome the overburdened types passing as rounded-out characters. Poor Sean Astin is particularly encumbered as the designated Average Middle-Class Joe. But not even the reliable Pollak, a stand-up comic who has energized even such disasters as "End of Days," can bring this wooden exercise to life.
Credit Lurie with a bit of foresight in speculating a candidate named Trump for the '08 elections, as well as a Vice President Buchanan, who left office in disgrace. (The film was completed last year, long before the political possibilities of either men were being discussed.) Sadly, nothing else in the film matches even that slight touch of whimsy.