Where Have All the Russkies Gone?

This summer Air Force One kicked off the post-Cold War thriller derby. The Peacemaker, the first feature from DreamWorks, the studio headed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, picks up the hot potato and carries it another nine yards. Once again we're watching thickly accented Russians bemoaning the loss of the empire. To compensate, they've become supermercenaries, selling missiles intended for deactivation under the START nuclear disarmament treaty to the highest bidder. The Peacemaker has the veneer of a "cautionary" thriller about the dangers of unsecured nuclear weaponry, but it's really about glam and guns. New studio, same old stuff.

There's a good sick joke here: The breakup of the Cold War has licensed the commies to out-capitalist the capitalists. But jokes don't exactly abound in The Peacemaker -- not intentional ones anyway. As dumb-dumb as Air Force One was, there was still a nutty enjoyment in watching Harrison Ford hanging off the cargo hatch James Bond-style. You don't get that sort of comic-book charge in The Peacemaker. Reportedly, first-time feature director Mimi Leder, a veteran of TV's ER and China Beach, was going for a Costa-Gavras effect -- Z with nukes.

But Costa-Gavras never had the DreamWorks apparatus to contend with. As an intelligence officer with the U.S. Army's Special Forces, George Clooney gets to model his jutting jaw for us; Nicole Kidman, as the nuclear scientist and acting head of the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group, looks smart dodging bullets in tasteful designer pantsuits and low heels. Most of the terrorism on view is strictly Hollywood: The Russians and Slavs and Croats and Austrians are essentially big bad wolves. Even when we're meant to sympathize with the Serb (Marcel Iures) who smuggles a bomb into the United States -- he's retaliating for the murder of his wife and daughter by "peacekeepers" -- his clammy skin tones give him away. He tells the Americans "I am not a monster" just so we can be sure he is.

The new post-Cold War movie genre sets itself up as an ultraserious extension of American foreign policy while still piling on the hokum. The hokum is usually the best part, but it's rarely allowed to flourish -- as if that would be a sacrilege against the free world. In The Peacemaker, even the hokum is tired. Clooney's Lt. Col. Thomas Devoe and Kidman's Dr. Julia Kelly start out doing the battle-of-the-sexes thing: He's gruff and patronizing, she's defensive and patronizing. Pretty soon he's barreling utility vehicles through mortar fire and hanging from helis and hitting Croats upside the head, and she's ... well, she's not doing a whole lot except complaining about his lack of "impulse control." If only G.I. Jane were around! Where's that buzz cut when you need it?

American post-Cold War thrillers, despite their we-are-the-world veneer, often go in for a lot of chauvinist flag-waving and chest-thumping. In The Peacemaker, Devoe is an American's American -- meaning he prefers the paintings of LeRoy Nieman to Tiepolo's, and he rails against elitist institutions like Harvard that have "educated half the world's terrorists." Those snooty academics just don't get it.

Perhaps the most laughable bit of chauvinism in The Peacemaker is the short shrift it gives to the nuclear explosion that kicks it off. Described as "worse than Chernobyl," the disaster quickly fades from view, even though it's toxic to all of Russia and northern Europe. Now, if that radioactive cloud passed over, say, New York, you can bet we'd never hear the end of it. And if that cloud passed over Hollywood ...

The Peacemaker.
Written by Michael Schiffer; directed by Mimi Leder; with George Clooney, Nicole Kidman, Marcel Iures, Alexander Baluev, and Rene Medvesek.

 
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