Let's Make a Deal

The Peacemaker
area theaters, starts Friday

APART FROM ALL the nuclear explosives and action per se, The Peacemaker qualifies as an "action film" simply because it has so many agendas to track. There's the man/woman thing, the lingering Cold War stuff, and the thought-vs.-action/theory-vs.-practice paradigms--enough to make a policy wonk's head spin. Can so much stuff be boiled down into a tech-happy adventure to eclipse either Air Force One or (hope of all hopes) Bond... James Bond?

The Peacemaker is no intellectual paradise, but as the first feature from the ambitious and well-heeled new DreamWorks Pictures studio (Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen), it tries very hard to satisfy every possible audience. Cold-red laser sights pierce the darkness of a train car (intrigue); an H-bomb goes off (action); a terrorist roams Manhattan with a nuclear backpack (suspense); a man learns he's gotta let his woman finish her swimming laps (romance?).

The man is Col. Tom Devoe (George Clooney), and his woman (eventually) is Dr. Julia Kelly (Nicole Kidman). He's your usual rule-bending manchild, fluent in Russian but eager to pull a counterintelligence prank when necessary. She's the equally fluent, equally familiar Thinking Beauty who knows a lot but hasn't really acted on it. As a government security analyst, her specialty is nuclear terrorism; she has the insights but not the field experience. So Devoe, Mr. Action Hero, steps in to lend a hand. But as The Peacemaker's story escalates, and Dr. Kelly's ideas keep getting ignored or shouted down, something seems missing from her stereotype--like a lab coat to wear, some glasses to take off, or a bun to undo.

That's just one part of the plot. More pressing is the train crash in Russia involving stolen nuclear detonators. One bomb blew up real good--and who the hell knows what happened to the other nine? Then, once eight of those are found (in another country, after intervening chases), the question becomes, What the hell happened to the one that's still missing? Kelly's skill is in intuiting not only what these weapons can do but why people would want to deploy them, while Devoe's skill is in finding those villains and squashing 'em. So the two roam all over the place, from Moscow and Turkey to Bosnia and the Upper East Side, narrowly meeting deadlines as they go.

First-time feature director Mimi Leder has honed her skills on several ER episodes, and with the help of some acrobatic cameras and tight editing, she keeps The Peacemaker in intensive care as well. Her early shots on the renegade train frame red-tinged Russki soldiers as if they were Stalin-era propaganda icons, and the detonation of the first bomb is neatly matched to a shot of Dr. Kelly "exploding" into her swimming routine. A car chase in Vienna (BMW 4, Mercedes-Benz 1) is knuckle-biting stuff that seemingly never stops: solid craft, pure and simple. But these scenes would amount to just another Breakdown without the substance to make it interesting, and this is where hints of an even better movie begin to surface. The "terrorist" is actually a sensitive guy who wants to let the world know that his country has been wronged; and the people tracking him realize this fact nearly too late.

As an action movie with a woman's touch, The Peacemaker is novel but a mixed blessing. Dr. Kelly and Col. Devoe are drawn from stencils even though the story really isn't. And the action nearly breaks the movie's intellectual backbone. Cold War wish fulfillment notwithstanding (see Air Force One), forgotten Soviet weaponry does pose a genuine global security problem. And given the parallel example of Mir maintenance, we ought to care about it.

This issue is explored in more detail in One Point Safe, the new book by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn that inspired The Peacemaker's screenplay. The movie can't be expected to summarize the book, but what it does retain--amid the Clooney character's heroic sorties--is a painful sense of (American) confusion about the state of the world's allegiances. At the eleventh hour, the film invites a stranger--the real mad bomber--to state his case and ask for understanding. And in the face of this man's poignant (if misguided) point, Kelly and Devoe and their whole noisy project are struck dumb.

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