IN THE OPENING minutes of "The Peacemaker," the first movie from the Steven Spielberg/Jeffrey Katzenberg/David Geffen company DreamWorks, a Russian passenger train travels through the countryside on an unwitting collision course with a military train carrying an armed nuclear warhead. The director, Mimi Leder, makes sure we see the people in the passenger train, including a woman nursing her infant, unaware of their impending death. After the collision, she shows us people scrambling away from the train shortly before the warhead explodes. Then she cuts to a peasant couple, awakened by the sound of the train crash, scrambling out to their front yard just in time to see a mushroom cloud in the seconds before they are vaporized.
If you pick up this month's Elle, you can see a short profile of Leder under the headline "Action Woman: Director Mimi Leder Plays With the Big Boys," the implication being: Isn't it great that a first-time woman director gets to work in a genre usually reserved for men? I suppose so, if you think that it's a leap forward for woman filmmakers to get a chance to prove they can be as brutal and stupid as men.
With the exception of one stray shot -- an aerial view of a carpet of smoke billowing up between trees as one of those trains travels through the night -- there isn't a moment in the two hours and two minutes of "The Peacemaker" that has a trace of style, flair or wit. No clichi, no hokey set-up escapes Leder. When the hero, George Clooney, has to draw a bead on the villain, you can be sure that a group of schoolchildren is going to get between them. There's nothing wrong with a new production company giving its first feature to someone who's never directed a movie before, or wanting to debut with a piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment. The problem is that DreamWorks has chosen to debut with a hack at the helm of a picture that, for its intermittent brutality, is punishingly dull.
"The Peacemaker," which is about an Army Special Forces lieutenant colonel (Clooney) and a nuclear scientist working with the White House (Nicole Kidman) who have to track down a stolen nuclear warhead, hopscotches from Russia to Washington to Vienna to Turkey to Iran to New York. And thank God for the titles telling you where you are, because most of the movie is set in conference rooms and nerve centers and military hangars, surrounded by computers and weapons and all sorts of official-looking gizmos. I know that Tom Clancy's novels regularly sell millions, but does anybody really get pleasure out of movie thrillers that are as relentlessly official and sexless as this one? Does anybody really want to see a thriller starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman where there's not so much as a little sexy backchat between them? I presume the reason that Kidman's hair is dyed a mousy brunet is that the glamorous and dramatic sight of her gloriously fiery tendrils would be out of keeping with the movie's gray demeanor. To really do this material and direction justice, you have to imagine "The Peacemaker" made in the mid-'60s with a cast of, say, Rock Hudson, George Peppard, Carl Betz, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy and William Schallert. (The casting of Armin Mueller-Stahl as a member of the Russian military is a step in the right direction.) Leder trashes her actors. If you've never seen Michael Boatman on "Spin City," his role as an Army corporal here wouldn't give you a clue as to how sharp and funny he can be.
Kidman has nothing to do but give orders and look efficient. She's playing the egghead who has to learn to give up her by-the-book manner and trust Clooney's man of action. When you've cast a woman in that role, though, you've set up a situation where it appears as if she's not up to the task just because she's a woman. And the character of the take-charge Army guy does nothing for Clooney. He basically is called on to act cocky throughout the entire movie. But when an actor is as relaxed in front of the camera as Clooney is, he doesn't need to act cocky. Even though the mucked-up "One Fine Day" wasn't a hit, it's a mystery to me why Clooney's sexy, utterly winning performance in that movie hasn't set Hollywood falling over itself to cast him as a romantic leading man. This guy is obviously a good actor. He's also born to be a movie star.
What puts "The Peacemaker" (which is partly based on Andrew and Leslie Cockburn's reporting on nuclear smuggling) in a special class of lousy movies is its pretensions to seriousness, which some members of the press seem to be swallowing. In his profile of Kidman in the current Vanity Fair, Michael Shnayerson says the movie "succeeds both as high-level entertainment and as a haunting reminder of how violence breeds terrorism." (It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!) The fellow who has plans for that hijacked warhead is "a Serb, a Croat, a Muslim," as he describes himself (he's played by Romanian actor Marcel Iures), who wants to set the device off in the West to impart a taste of the agony his country has gone through, or some such nonsense.
Even if I hadn't already seen Michael Winterbottom's upcoming "Welcome to Sarajevo," a flawed and incendiary movie that excoriates the West's indifference to what happened in the Balkans, I would have been appalled by the way "The Peacemaker" uses that situation as the basis for a pulp thriller. Current events have long been fodder for the movies. But there's a special insensitivity about a movie that chews up a situation that barely feels as if it were in the past, a situation where the wounds haven't begun to heal. "The Peacemaker" is a leftover burp from the summer blockbusters, and it's hard to make a case for it being formally worse than "Air Force One" or "Conspiracy Theory" or "Con Air." But it feels worse. It's clumsy and dunderheaded in the way that can make you hate Hollywood.