In 2008, President Walter Emerson, formerly an appointed U.S. vice president and elevated by the death of the previous U.S. president, is crossing the U.S. on a campaign tour when a blizzard traps him in a remote Colorado diner with members of his staff plus a group of ordinary citizens.
Suddenly, word arrives that Uday Hussein, 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 aim 23 nuclear ICBMs against various countries, including Australia, Japan, France and other targets.
Emerson argues with advisers while appearing totally confident in his own actions. Suddenly, Harvey brandishes a gun and shoots the USAF major carrying the briefcase that contains the launch codes. Emerson's bodyguards then kill the cook in self-defense.
To the horror of all, Emerson 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 Greece, but it does not detonate. Neither does a device that lands in Japan. A majority of the other missiles have been intercepted.
A short time later, Emerson addresses the world on TV. He explains that in order to prevent Iraq from attaining nuclear weapons, the U.S. sold it nuclear weapons through the French, while 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.Kevin Pollak as President Walter Emerson
Timothy Hutton as White House Chief of Staff Marshall Thompson
Sean Astin as Ralph
Sheryl Lee Ralph as National Security Advisor Gayle Redford
Clotilde Courau as Katie
Badja Djola as Harvey
Mark Thompson as Gerald Irvin
Michael Mantell as Taylor Woods
Kathryn Morris as Lizzie Woods
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."
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."
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.