When you glance back to political thrillers in the 1990’s, they occupy a curious place in the collective consciousness. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was battling not the IRA, but fanatical IRA rebels who still wanted to commit terrorist acts when the real-life IRA were closing in on the Good Friday agreement. James Bond swerved away from the eventual Daniel Craig path of grittier action following Timothy Dalton’s shortened spell and grew ever more back to the overblown, tongue in cheek fantasy of the Roger Moore days – only this time he fought media barons or devious oil heiresses, not Russia.
The Cold War being over, where would Hollywood pluck its villains from? Who was left to fight? The Peacemaker is one of the best 90’s movies to try and answer that question.
One of the first standout facts about The Peacemaker is that it was directed by a woman, Mimi Leder. Not unusual in of itself (Kathryn Bigelow was making Strange Days around then), but how many female directors do you remember helming a serious, political action thriller? The fact she does a pretty stellar job visually, in terms of style and scope, while teasing several excellent performances out of a distinctly cheesy script, speaks volumes as to why more women should be directing these kinds of pictures.
Leder’s film positions the Russians in the background of a plot by Serbian radicals, in the wake of the Bosnian conflict, working with a renegade Russian Colonel to detonate a nuclear weapon on American soil. They sit uniquely between the old detente bad guys of Cold War espionage and the current era of radicalised Muslim fundamentalists.
The Peacemaker moves like a bullet, zipping around Europe particularly, as our mismatched leads hunt down Alexander Kodoroff (a particularly slimy Alexsandr Baluev), after he detonates a nuclear device on Russian soil. Nicole Kidman has always been particularly good at essaying somewhat uptight women and as nuclear expert Dr Julia Kelly, she brings that level of knowledge laced with incredulousness very well to the fore, especially opposite George Clooney’s Lt. Colonel Tom Devoe, the kind of charming rogue Clooney can play in his sleep. Yes, occasionally, some of the sexual politics between them leaves a little to be desired (Julia often has to be rescued by Devoe), but the script gets across well how these two come from very different worlds.
Julia operates from a world of bookish analysis, studying nuclear threats and the changing geo-political landscape after the fall of the Soviet Union which informs the plot and villains like Kodoroff, who essentially became rich off illegal arms sales after the U.S.S.R combusted and operates like a playboy. Devoe is a man of action and realism and some of the best moments see Clooney play that to maximum effect.
Particularly strong is an action set-piece in Vienna after Clooney beats up an arms dealer only to find his old Russian opposite (played by the great Armin Mueller-Stahl in an extended cameo) gunned down. The way he quite coldly exacts revenge in a skilfully edited car chase which turns into a ram raid shows a brutal side you almost wish Clooney had the chance to play with more often as an actor.
Kodoroff in the end isn’t even the main villain, giving way to the mastermind behind what Devoe & Kelly eventually expose as behind the plot to attack New York City (prescient, eh?). Dusan Gavric (played beautifully with calm zeal by Marcel Iures) describes himself in a manifesto video, curiously, as being “a Serb, a Croat, a Muslim”, perhaps displaying the complexity behind a villainous ideology fuelled by righteous anger at the West for supplying weapons during the conflict in Serbia, but triggered by the tragic death of his family in the wars. Gavric is that most dangerous of villains – a zealot with nothing to lose, and the climax of a seemingly average, middle-aged white man with a nuke in his backpack, walking the New York streets, is quite chilling in retrospect.
This cues up a finale which is both thrilling and unexpectedly moving, as Devoe & Kelly race against time to find Gavric amongst the melee and stop him from committing what at that time would have been the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history.
Buoyed by Hans Zimmer’s tremendous score, which pulsates across the entire picture with furious bombast, The Peacemaker builds to an ending with no easy answers as to the motives of a man who almost destroys the heartland of modern America. Kelly just breaks down at the end, perhaps aware of how close they came to nuclear oblivion, and an act which would have changed their country forever.
Four short years later, of course, such an act took place with the events of 9/11. The Peacemaker doesn’t exactly see the attack coming, but maybe it does see the writing on the wall. Perhaps it aptly understands the 1990’s as being a world on the verge of not just a new century, but a new era. The end of the Cold War was once described as “the end of history”, but films such as The Peacemaker—for all, ultimately, it’s at times a fairly throwaway action thriller—remind us that the stage may change, but the conflicts remain as sharp and present as they always did.
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