Like Dr Strangelove and Fail-Safe, the best of the 1960s nuclear war films, Deterrence constrains itself to a single location. (Where Dr Strangelove and Fail-Safe managed three locations apiece, Deterrence notably uses a single setting and also sets its drama within real time ie. the 90 minute running time of the film). Deterrence closely resembles Fail-Safe, which mostly consisted of two men in a bare room but was absolutely gripping in its playing out of the agonising attempt to stop the mission. Director Rod Lurie conducts an effective job of turning the business of people talking into cellphones into gripping drama, thanks to tight, snappy editing, multi-layered dialogue and some effective plot twists. Along with Crimson Tide, the 1990s nuclear war film seems concerned less with the horrors of nuclear war than with the debates over the ethics of releasing the bombs. Kevin Pollak gives a good performance as a President who resents having come to his position without having been voted in and is trying to make a tough stand to prove himself and then, having done so, does not want to show his weakness by backing down. The script effectively wheels out arguments and opposing points of view to ask questions in ways that US media have demonstrated great reluctance to do so regarding the justification of military intervention in the Gulf.
Had Deterrence continued along these lines it would probably have ended up a four star film. The problem is its ending, which must rank up there along with tacked-on happy ending in the original cinematic release of Blade Runner (1982), or The Final Countdown (1980) and eXistenZ (1999) as one of the great genre letdowns of all-time. If it had been made for tv or was a studio production, you could understand that this might be an ending that was enforced by censorship or a studio that did not like bleak endings, but this is an indie production and does not have those excuses. You fail to understand how a three-quarters good and literate film can suddenly fumble it so badly. The ending it pulls out of a hat is something akin to a bad episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) where at the last moment Data might produce a heretofore unknown technical flourish of the hand out of nowhere that saves the day. Here Kevin Pollaks President (who has only been President for four months, yet is privy to information that his national security advisors and chiefs of military staff are not) reveals that the missiles sold to the Iraqis were deliberately sold with dud warheads. It is a revelation that is not only bogus storytelling but also one that completely vilifies the Presidents position and indeed the one put forward by Sean Astins redneck character that the only solution is to crispy char the bastards. So much doubt is put on Kevin Pollaks choice throughout and the question of whether Americas military obsession with Iraq is right and effort made to point out the real human cost of nuclear war, that for the film to then turn around and call the total nuclear evisceration of Baghdad a righteous decision and have Pollak lecture about the USs position as peacekeeper in the world (all delivered without distinguishable tone of irony or disapproval) is not only incomprehensible but odious.
Of course, Deterrence was made well before George W. Bush became the President of the United States. Subsequently, Bushs deeply unpopular invasion of Iraq in 2003 succeeded in giving Deterrence an uncanny and ironic number of real-life parallels. Bush, like Pollaks President, came to power, not after inheriting the role from his predecessor, but in an election where he won by only the slimmest of margins and legal chicanery and then promptly embarked on an internationally ill-advised unilateral foreign policy as though he had to prove his own determination and will. In both cases with the Bush White House and Kevin Pollaks President here Saddam Hussein has been demonised as all that is contrary to democracy and freedom the fear of Iraq launching nuclear weapons against the rest of the world here makes remarkable contrast to the real world situation where White House intelligence lied and distorted existing evidence to make an entirely insubstantial case for Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear and chemical weapons. You can also draw parallels between Kevin Pollaks President here nuking Baghdad and then pontificating about the US being a world peacekeeping force, and Bushs internationally offensive stance of invading Iraq after thumbing his nose at the UN and international opinion, all the while hiding behind the excuse of Iraq ignoring UN decrees as justification for doing so.
Deterrence was a directorial debut for Rod Lurie, a former film critic who subsequently went onto make the likes of The Last Castle (2001) and the remake of Straw Dogs (2011). Luries films have shown a frequent interest in politics with the likes of The Contender (2000), the tv movies Im Paige Wilson (2007) and Killing Reagan (2016), as writer of the tv movie Capital City (2004) and creator of the tv series Commander in Chief (2005-6).