Published January 1, 2000
It is fascinating how, although Hollywood has implicitly believed in every crackpot conspiracy theory for decades and has been willing to attribute to the democratically elected government of the United States any and all perfidies, it retains a sentimental attachment to the idea of the presidency. The image of the good king dies hard in the Great American Republic. Look at The American President, My Fellow Americans, Dave etc etc. True, there are occasional exceptions such as Wag the Dog, but in that movie the President himself never actually appears. It is as if the filmmakers are ashamed of themselves for attributing such behavior to Our Leader, even though they and everyone else in Hollywood take it (and far worse) for granted in the government he presides over.
Now we have Deterrence, written and directed by Rod Lurie, which gives us what is perhaps the weirdest combination yet of conspiracy theory and presidentolotry. Its ludicrous premiss is no crazier than that of dozens of other political movies, but it is worth retelling in some detail here as an indication of what realpolitik means today to the popular culture which is not, after all, unrelated to the election of presidents. Kevin Pollak plays President Walter Emerson, an appointed vice president in the near future who unexpectedly succeeds to the presidency on the death of the president who appointed him. He is now campaigning for election in his own right in an improbably important Colorado primary.
Also improbably, he is still campaigning in that state when the returns begin coming in, showing him the victor. A sudden snowstorm forces him and his rather abbreviated entourage to seek shelter in a roadside eatery called Morty’s Home Style Diner. But no sooner is the presidential party ensconced in the diner amid a miscellaneous collection of locals—Harvey, the black cook and proprietor, Katy, the French-Canadian waitress, a couple of visiting New Yorkers and a local yahoo called Ralph—than the son of Saddam Hussein, now the man in charge in Iraq, invades Kuwait and massacres the tripwire force of American Marines still stationed in that country.
When the news is relayed to President Emerson in Morty’s Diner, he decides that it is time for an ultimatum: either Saddam Jr. pulls his forces out of Kuwait and presents himself at the American embassy where he will be placed under arrest, or our boys drop the big one (100 megatons) on Baghdad. But guess what? Surprise! Saddam Jr. has some nukes of his own and a delivery system of Superscuds—even a nuclear submarine or two—with which he can hit American and European cities. We call off our bomb or he orders his missiles into the air. Is he bluffing or are we? Does the president, so cool under pressure that he can take the time to advise (obviously with some knowledge) the New Yorkers on their chess match, submit to the mounting panic around him?
As they begin to realize what is going on, not only the civilians in the diner but also his two principal aides—chief of staff Marshall Thompson (Timothy Hutton) and national security adviser Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph) grow more and more desperate to dissuade him from what looks to them like an act of literally world-shattering folly. Even the First Lady, by telephone, threatens to divorce him if he insists on blowing up the world. “I’m not going to be your Eva Braun,” she says. O ye of little faith! I’ll not reveal the details, but the president knows Something—rather a Big Thing—too that none of the others knows. It is something which makes it fairly easy for him to remain cool under fire.
You, like me, may think this is cheating a bit if the aim is to show off the president’s heroic qualities, but then they say that Kennedy was happy to take the credit for nerve and resolution after the Cuban missile crisis even though he knew, as the rest of us did not at that point, that the new Russian ICBMs had faulty guidance systems and were likely to be unable to hit their targets if they were fired. The really remarkable thing about this movie is that in the end (cover your ears and hum the “Star-Spangled Banner” if you don’t want to know this) the prez does incinerate Baghdad and with it, presumably, a few million towel heads, but this is obviously meant not to interfere with our admiration for him.
Well, comment is superfluous. But it is just worth noting one of the ways in which the film conveys this admiration. Like a certain president whose little foibles are not unknown to the readers of the American Spectator, this president is in the habit of carrying around with him an unlit cigar, which he occasionally rolls around in his mouth. When his own little international chess game has ended with its quaint, thermonuclear checkmate and he is leaving the diner at last, he pauses for a moment and lights the cigar. Boy, has this guy slipped the leash of political correctness! Not only has he Crispy-Crittered—as Ralph the Yahoo (Sean Astin) puts it—a few million A-rabs, he’s even dared to celebrate the occasion with a lighted cigar. What a man!
Just by the way, notice by how little—the flare of a match—Bill Clinton may lack the same touch of greatness.
The conspiracy in this film is a benign one (unless you happen to be Iraqi, of course), the presidential secret kept not only from the people but from his own closest advisers a nice surprise for once. But it is still a conspiracy movie and presents us with the standard Hollywood view that the world is governed by conspiracy. Now that world, the American world, and its oil supply is to be made safe for American power at no cost to you whatsoever! The sheer cleverness and American ingenuity of these good conspirators is enough to trick those dumb Iraqis out of their misguided challenge to the U.S. world-imperium. I hate to admit it after years of writing about Hollywood’s anti-Americanism, but I’m afraid that the crudest sort of jingoism is never far beneath the surface of Hollywood’s much vaunted cynicism.