Paramount // 1999 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // September 29th, 2000
Brinkmanship in the post-Cold War era.
Film critic turned director Rob Lurie has come up with a tense melodrama on the times when a President makes decisions on the use of his ultimate power: the release of a thermonuclear weapon. Kevin Pollak and Timothy Hutton give strong performances in this claustrophobic, polarizing thriller done on one set and with a low budget. Seemingly done as much for the stage or for the small screen, it has a prime venue on DVD. Paramount has released this disc as a Special Edition, which means it has a commentary track. I'm pleased with both film and disc.
The year is 2008. President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak) is caught at a roadside diner in Aztec, Colorado by a freak snowstorm during a campaign swing, along with his Chief of Staff Marshal Thompson (Timothy Hutton), National Security Advisor Gayle Redford (Sheryl Lee Ralph), his Secret Service detail, and a cable news crew. With one international crisis in Korea already claiming most of America's troop strength, Iraqi leader Udei Hussein (son of Saddam) sends 500,000 troops into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, determined not to make his father's mistakes of 1990. To up the ante, satellites detect that they have chemical and biological weapons on mobile missile launchers nearly ready to fire at Israel and Turkey. With no conventional forces capable of stopping the onslaught, Emerson lays down the gauntlet on television via the news cameras: either withdraw the troops within 90 minutes or he will order a thermonuclear strike on the city of Baghdad. The film plays out nearly in real time as the crisis snowballs with other nations joining in the nuclear standoff and advisors trying to talk the President out of this dangerous plan.
Muddying the very real crisis and debate is the matter that Emerson is not an elected President, having arrived at the position through highly unusual events and having been in office for only three months. To make matters worse in this Middle Eastern conflict, President Emerson is Jewish. Twists and turns come up throughout the film, along with a most unexpected ending.
I'm a fan of books and films dealing with high-level political and military intrigue, so it is not surprising that I found myself having affection for this film. While there are a few contrivances, not the least of which is that the President could find himself cut off from the trappings of his office in a small diner for the whole film, I thought the level of detail in which the crisis unfolds and the ultimate suspension of disbelief that such a crisis could happen gripping. Watching Kevin Pollak, decidedly un-Presidential in appearance and demeanor in the beginning, come into his own as a leader and Commander-in-Chief as the film progresses is one of its greatest strengths. Very Truman-esque in outlook and decision making, Pollak's Emerson listens to much contrary advice yet does not waver in his determination to hold to his stance in dissuading aggression using the highest stakes possible. I found Pollak's performance eminently believable and found new respect for his ability to really carry a film on his shoulders rather than his usual role as character actor and supporting player. Though Kevin Pollak may be better known for comedic roles, only a hint of his talent for humor comes through and he works decidedly within the highly dramatic context of the film.
Likewise I thought Timothy Hutton worked wonderfully in his role of long-time friend and political advisor Marshall Thompson. In one particularly powerful scene (which left me open-mouthed with admiration for the performance) Thompson states "You will be wiping out a civilization...where civilization began. And, my friend, you'd better damn well be okay with that." That was at the end of an eloquent exchange where he describes the effects of a nuclear blast that I believe is one of Hutton's single best scenes.
The supporting cast each had moments to shine as well. Sheryl Lee Ralph brought some degree of poise and intelligence to an unusual casting as National Security Advisor, and several bystanders who either worked at or were patronizing the diner put in their two cents. I was disturbed but impressed by Sean Astin's turn as a loud-mouthed bigot, especially after thinking of him as the nice guy in films like Rudy. Badja Djola (The Hurricane) also lent some humor, intellect, and intrigue to the film in his small role as Harvey, the diner's cook and owner. To get outside the set, much of the film is told from the perspective of IBS (a fictional version of CNN) and its announcer, played convincingly by radio host Mark Thompson. His proficiency as a newscaster also lent credibility to this inherently incredible story.
The main strength of the film, besides the performances, is the sophisticated presentation of global politics based on projected future realities. But another strength, and a daring one at that, is the moral ambiguity of the film. The President will be thought villain by many; hero by some, and it is a daring choice to leave that up to the viewer to decide. Too often a film will decide who wears the white hat and leave obvious clues to make sure you know what they think you should think.
This anamorphic transfer from Paramount is above average, which is not meant as an insult. There is some grain from the source print, but no real film defects. The image is a bit dark and a bit soft, but there are no artifacts or edge enhancement issues worth noting. The look is very smooth, and the detail level not so soft as to make anything blurry. I give it, as I say, above average marks. The sound quality is likewise fine, but there is little here to make demands on your sound system. The sound is Dolby stereo, with virtually nothing for the surrounds to do, but then again there are few sound effects in this dialogue driven film. The score comes through nicely, and the level of clarity is fine. Dialogue is always understandable; which is the most important aspect here.
The extras are on the light side, especially for a Special Edition. The main attraction is the commentary track by writer and director Rob Lurie. He is frank and honest with his film; discussing where he felt the film could have been better as well as what he was happy with. He took the attitude that commentary tracks are an invaluable tool for film students and film lovers alike, so I'm happy he went into some real detail about how the film was made, and what he hoped would come through. I was particularly interesting in the process of how the film got its script, cast, and financing; information any aspiring filmmaker can use. The only other extra is the theatrical trailer, also in anamorphic widescreen.
Some reviews of the film in its limited first run in theaters thought the film oppressive in its direction, with many close-ups and the closed in feel of the single set. I can imagine those close ups might indeed be so when seen on the large screen, but they work much better in a home theater. I don't believe it was intentional, but it is still no detriment that it works better on DVD than it might have in its first run.
Still I must agree that the low budget of the film is brought to the forefront by the closed in single set of the diner. It was a hurdle that the film had to overcome; the first of several contrivances. While it did add some sense of intensity in the uncomfortable closeness of the diner where virtually the whole film takes place, it would have been far more believable to see more of the world as these events took place and to have put the President in full command in Looking Glass or Air Force One. There are other conflicts that come along that also threaten to make the viewer lose his suspension of disbelief; such as the high-level talks and strategies being done in full view and hearing of the yahoos who happened to be at this diner. In the end I felt the film vindicated itself and overcame these difficulties, but I also believe the task could have been easier and better done with a bigger budget and a more expansive feel.
The ending is one of many elements within the film that polarize people and critics. I will not give it away, but I found it both surprising and interesting, while others will not. The film itself will do both to viewers, and some will find it infuriating or simply unbelievable. The very premise that a President might so quickly play the nuclear trump card may be found so. I can only say what I felt about the film, but I can also recognize that this film in particular has the capacity to alienate some, and cause some violent disagreements with my opinion.
As a person educated in nuclear engineering, I do have to protest one scientific inaccuracy in the film. It is claimed that the President plans to drop a 100 megaton warhead on Baghdad; in fact nothing larger than approximately 50 megatons has ever been developed and warheads today are made in the one to ten megaton yields range. It has long been established that you get decreasing destructive force for the yield used as it goes higher. Since Rob Lurie was a West Point graduate and a missile officer on active duty, I'd assume he knows better.
What Paramount calls a "Special Edition," other studios like Universal call normal. A commentary track and a trailer are at best what you could call a special edition, but it is lacking those extra touches that would truly make it special, like deleted scenes and cast interviews. I would have liked more for the special edition label, but at least there is the commentary track and for that I'm grateful. I realize the film wasn't a huge money maker and perhaps we are lucky to get the treatment that we got.
Polarizing, intriguing, and thought provoking; this film is not for everyone. But fans of political intrigue at the highest levels of brinkmanship will likely be happy with this film they may not have gotten the chance to see in theaters. I am also happy to see a film critic successfully make the transition to film director; maybe someday I too will make a film and you can say you "read me when." Or maybe not. At any rate, this disc is worth a purchase if you do not fall on the wrong side of the polarizing divide. Perhaps a rental is in order first.
I hereby acquit the film and disc, along with Paramount, while encouraging them to include commentary tracks on every release.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track