American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Early in “Deep Impact” we learn that a comet “the size of Mt. Everest” is on a collision course for Earth. There would seem to be two possible outcomes: (1) The comet hits Earth, destroying it, or (2) the comet does not hit Earth, in which case humanity is spared but the audience is denied the sight of lots of special effects. In the first scenario you don't get the obligatory happy ending, and in the second everyone leaves feeling cheated.
Most doomsday movies avoid this choice by prudently choosing less than apocalyptic events. A volcano, a twister or a tidal wave can supply lots of terrifying special effects and still leave a lot of people standing. But “Deep Impact” seems to back itself into a corner, and maybe that's why the producers hired not one but two of the brightest writers in Hollywood to work on the project: Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”) and Michael Tolkin (“The Player”). Together, they've figured out how to have their cake and eat it, too.
How do they do this? I would not dream of revealing their inspiration, although you may be able to figure it out yourself. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the way they create little flashes of wit in the dialogue, which enlivens what is, after all, a formula disaster movie. What's the formula? Assorted archetypal characters are introduced, they're assigned personal problems, and the story cuts between them as the moment of disaster grows closer. I always think it's more interesting if they know from the start that there's a big problem; I get tired of scenes in which they live blissfully unaware of the catastrophe unfolding beneath their feet, or above their heads, or wherever.
“Deep Impact” begins with the obligatory opening pre-catastrophe, in this case a runaway semi that mows down a Jeep and kills the astronomer who is bringing news of the approaching comet. (The other movie I saw on the same day, “The Horse Whisperer,” also opened with a runaway semi, and indeed I cannot recall a single movie in which a semi on a two-lane road did not careen out of control.) Then there's a little ritual media-bashing; Tea Leoni plays a reporter for MSNBC who suspects there's more to the story of a cabinet official's resignation. She accuses him of having an affair with a woman named “Ellie,” and he gets to say, “I know you're just a reporter, but you used to be a person.” (The approved media response to this is, “Look who's talking! A Cabinet member!”) Soon she discovers her error; he is resigning not because of Ellie but because of an E.L.E., which is jargon for “Extinction Level Event.” He wants to spend more time with his family, and has stocked a yacht with dozens of cases of vitamin-rich Ensure. He must not have been invited to the briefing where it was explained that all surface life would be destroyed by the comet, or the other briefing about the 1,000-foot-tall tidal wave. My guess is, the president wanted him out of the Cabinet.