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ON THE BUTTON <br> PUSHING BACK DISASTER IS A THRILLING BUSINESS

TO EVERY thing, there is a season. (Thank you, Ecclesiastes.) And to every season, there's an appropriate thriller plot.

When the Cold War was raging, we had spy movies galore. Now, with the Cold War and communism both dead, the subject of the hour is all those old Soviet nuclear devices.

Where the devil are they? Whose fingers are on the buttons? And what are the odds on any of them being trained on Uncle Harry and Aunt Marge?

"Russia -- what a . . . mess," says the National Security adviser in Mimi Leder's taut and tense and dandy first theatrical film, "The Peacemaker." "God, I miss the Cold War."

Well, I don't, but I have to admit all those hijacked nukes make for a good, if elemental, thriller plot.

Screenwriter Michael Schiffer throws a lot of moral brow-furrowing over Bosnia into the film, but most of it is a smokescreen from some very basic hugger-mugger. When all the New Order ruminations are done, it's just George Clooney and Nicole Kidman driving fast, running fast and thinking fast while they track a crazed, bomb-packing nuke-jacker from the Ural Mountains to Manhattan's 42nd Street.

It starts off with 10 pilfered nuclear devices but, as our philosophic scientist (Kidman) observes, it isn't the guy who snags 10 nukes you have to worry about, it's the fellow who wants only one.

To say that this is far and away the best film Clooney has made isn't saying all that much. His is not a film list you'd wish on Moammar Gadhafi. (OK, Gadhafi maybe, but not Margaret Thatcher.)

Nor is it all that hard to figure, either. In the first official film of the Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg movie studio, DreamWorks, Clooney was under the direction of Leder, making her first theatrical film after doing some tremendous episodic television, most notably "ER," which is, whatever else, one of the best-directed shows on TV. So Clooney and Leder have a first-rate working relationship, and you can see it here.

Clooney plays an Army colonel, a Russian specialist who's not above a little black marketeering and head-knocking and point-blank murder when there's a job to be done. He's a fellow who prefers the paintings of LeRoy Neiman to those of Tiepolo.

Just the guy, then, you'd send to represent us in the ancient battle of crass, brutal American can-doism vs. old-world connivance and corruption.

His boss, the nuke specialist, is played by Kidman, a woman who likes to do a few laps in the pool in the morning before consulting with the White House on the best ways, that day, to make the world safe for democracy.

As tense and terse as it is, Leder's direction is pretty much by the numbers, but then, that was more than enough to get a few jumps out of me -- when, say, small children were being threatened by sniper fire.

It will surprise nobody that the world doesn't end in a nuclear holocaust at the end of "The Peacemaker." How our dimwit species lucked out, yet again, makes for a pretty snazzy couple of hours.

MOVIE
The Peacemaker
Rating: *** 1/2
George Clooney and Nicole Kidman track some crazed nuke-jackers through Eastern Europe and Manhattan. Directed by Mimi Leder.
Rated R, opening today in area theaters.

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