Deterrence (film)

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DVD Cover
Directed by Rod Lurie
Produced by Marc Frydman
James Spies
Maurice Leblond
Screenplay by Rod Lurie
Starring Kevin Pollak
Timothy Hutton
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Clotilde Courau
Sean Astin
Music by Larry Groupé
Cinematography Frank Perl
Edited by Alan Roberts
Distributed by Paramount Classics
Release date
  • March 10, 2000 (2000-03-10) (United States)
Running time
104 minutes
Country France
United States
Language English
Budget $800,000
Box office $145,071

Deterrence is a 1999 French/American dramatic film written and directed by Rod Lurie, depicting fictional events about nuclear brinkmanship. It marks the feature directorial debut of Lurie, who was previously a film critic for the New York Daily News, Premiere Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and Movieline, among others. Kevin Pollak, Timothy Hutton, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Sean Astin star. The entire story takes place in a single location, a diner.[1]


Set in 2008, President Walter Emerson, formerly an appointed Vice President and elevated by the death of the previous (unseen) commander-in-chief, is crossing the country on a campaign tour when a freak snowstorm traps him in a remote Colorado diner with members of his staff plus a group of ordinary citizens.

Suddenly, word arrives that Uday Hussein, who in the film is the leader of Iraq, has invaded Kuwait. Using a television cameraman who is following his campaign, Emerson notifies the world that unless Hussein orders an immediate retreat and personally surrenders, he will bomb Baghdad with a nuclear weapon.

Hussein, through his United Nations envoy, refuses to back down and cuts off telephone negotiations, claiming Emerson is a non-elected leader and also a Jew. He threatens to fire Iraq's black-market nuclear missiles at several global locations including Emerson's own, near NORAD in Colorado, if his country comes under attack.

It is learned that Iraq purchased these weapons from France. Despite being a U.S. ally, the French president appears to be cavalier in confirming this with Emerson and his entourage. The sites of the missile launchers include Libya and North Korea.

Emerson is counseled by his chief of staff, Marshall Thompson, a former university classmate, and by his national security adviser, Gayle Redford. Once his ultimatum is made and the countdown to his deadline begins, the President and his staff are confronted with the opinions of the diner's customers, including its angry owner and cook, Harvey, and a young bigot named Ralph.

Emerson is not only adamant in his beliefs, he seems every bit as willing as Hussein to trigger a nuclear war. He orders a B-2 bomber to cross Iraq's borders despite the threats of the Iraqi ambassador that this would constitute an act of war. In retaliation, the Iraqis aims 23 nuclear I.C.B.M.s against various countries of the world, including Australia, Japan, France and other targets.

The President argues with advisers while appearing totally confident in his own actions. A tragedy occurs inside the diner when Harvey brandishes a gun and shoots the military officer carrying the briefcase that contains the launch codes. Emerson's security guards kill the cook.

To the horror of all, the President carries out his threat. He authorizes the dropping of a 100 megaton bomb on Baghdad, resulting in the complete destruction of that city.

Iraq's retaliation begins. A bomb lands in Athens, but it does not detonate. Neither does a device that lands in Hiroshima. A majority of the other missiles have been intercepted.

A short time later, the President addresses the world on TV. He explains that in order to prevent the Iraqi regime from developing its own nuclear devices through other channels, the U.S. sold it nuclear weapons via the French, whilst ensuring that they would never be able to function properly.

Already reeling from the shocks of the past few minutes, the President's aides are further astounded when he announces his immediate withdrawal from the election campaign. He did what he felt it necessary to do, but believes that someone else should be the one to carry on.



Critical reaction[edit]

Film critic Stephen Holden gave the film a mixed review, writing, "The threat of nuclear war may have receded in the last two decades, but it certainly hasn't disappeared. That's why a movie like Deterrence, Rod Lurie's clunky political thriller about nuclear brinksmanship in the near future, probably serves some useful purpose, despite its ham-fisted preachiness and mediocre acting...With its blunt admonitory tone and single-set location (reminiscent of 12 Angry Men), it often has the feel of a high school civics lesson packaged as melodrama. Its editorial pretensions are underscored by an opening black-and-white montage of actual presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Bill Clinton lambasting war."[2]

Critic Roger Ebert, on the other hand, liked the film, writing, "And yet the film works. It really does. I got caught up in the global chess game, in the bluffing and the dares, the dangerous strategy of using nuclear blackmail against a fanatic who might call the bluff. With one set and low-rent props (is that an ordinary laptop inside the nuclear briefcase "football?"), 'Deterrence' manufactures real suspense and considers real issues...Kevin Pollak makes a curiously convincing third-string president—a man not elected to the office, but determined to fill it. He is a Jew, which complicates his Middle East negotiations and produces a priceless theological discussion with the waitress (Clotilde Courau). He is advised by his chief of staff (Timothy Hutton) and his national security adviser (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who are appalled by his nuclear brinkmanship and who are both completely convincing in their roles. The screenplay gives them dialogue of substance; the situation may be contrived, but we're absorbed in the urgent debate that it inspires."[3]

Box office[edit]

Produced for a budget of $800,000, the film managed to only make $145,071 at the box office, making Deterrence a box office flop. The film only grossed $23,318 in its opening weekend.[4]


  1. ^ Deterrence at the Internet Movie Database
  2. ^ Holden, Stephen. The New York Times, film review, March 10, 2000. Last accessed: February 21, 2011.
  3. ^ Ebert, Roger. Chicago Sun-Times, film review, March 17, 2000. Last accessed: February 21, 2011.
  4. ^ Deterrence (2000) - Box Office Mojo

External links[edit]