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Don't even try to get the smirk off my face: Ben Affleck in 'The Sum of All Fears'
Paramount Pictures

We can blame you-know-what for The Sum of All Fears, the new espionage thriller in which a nuclear bomb erases Baltimore from the face of the Earth but can't manage to wipe the smirk off Ben Affleck's face. It isn't that the film shrinks from the specter of an American city reduced to flaming ruin. Rather, recent events seem to have taken all the fun out of this sort of apocalyptic disaster movie; watching things blow up on the big screen, you can't avoid the slightly shameful sense that you've seen better special effects on CNN. What has gone wrong when we can no longer innocently enjoy the computer-generated spectacle of a city being vaporized? As usual, The Onion diagnoses our affliction best: "Life Becomes Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie."

For a film thus buffeted by circumstance, The Sum of All Fears soldiers bravely on as though the past two decades, much less the past year, had never happened. In fact, its sole concession to the present state of the world is to swap the heavies of the 1991 Tom Clancy book on which it's based. The novel's villains were Islamic terrorists supplemented by "leftist" radicals, "careerist women," and Native American activists. (One gets the sense that Clancy's Axis of Evil is even more inclusive than our current administration's.) Apparently wishing not to offend any conceivable constituency, the filmmakers have narrowed the field somewhat by making the movie's antagonists a shadowy cabal of European "neofascists" (like regular old fascists, but without all the razzmatazz) who are manipulating geopolitics to their own nefarious ends.

Actually, it's never quite clear what those ends are. In the novel, the terrorists are trying to ignite a war between Russia and the U.S. The film's Nazis, on the other hand, merely express a vague discontent with European Union (the design of the euro apparently having failed to suit their taste). Indeed, for movie Nazis, they're a rather dull bunch. Thirty years ago, their leader would have been played by Gregory Peck with an effeminate lisp and lots of Brylcreem; Alan Bates, who plays the part here, comes off like Jean-Marie Le Pen with a better fashion sense.

The Sum of All Fears is a sort of prequel to Patriot Games and the other Jack Ryan movies (The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger), with Affleck instated in the role of Clancy's CIA-analyst hero--Harrison Ford having reached mandatory retirement age for sex symbols and government employees alike. Here, Affleck's Ryan, an expert in the minutiae of Russian politics, is enlisted to stop a nuclear exchange after a terrorist attack on the U.S. As if that weren't intense enough, he also has to patch things up with his girlfriend, whom he stands up in order to rush off and save the world. At one point, Affleck's CIA boss, played by Morgan Freeman, gives the newbie some welcome relationship counseling: "Speaking of [imminent apocalyptic] disaster--have you called your girlfriend yet?"

Between Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, and The Sum of All Fears, Hollywood suits seem to be investing an inordinate amount of money trying to blow Affleck up. You can't really blame them. The actor has smirky charm to burn; but he's always winking at himself, as though he knows he's too clever for these trashy, high-concept projects. That attitude is fine for Freeman, a veteran actor who regularly emerges unscathed from these kinds of films. When he cracks a smile here, we can tell that he's having fun with the absurdity of the picture, as well as with the stoic father-figure roles he often plays opposite callow white stars. (Will Hollywood ever let this man stop driving Miss Daisy?) Freeman's shtick is endearing; he's letting us in on the joke. But Affleck's seems condescending; he doesn't appear to understand that what made Ford such a popular action star was the care he took never to laugh at his audience.

The Sum of All Fears was directed by Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) in the accepted Bruckheimer/Scott/Bay mode--which is to say, it's sporadically coherent. As with most modern action movies, there's one impressive, budget-blasting money shot--of a nuke going off inside a football stadium during the Super Bowl. (Call it Fail-Safe on a Black Sunday.) Grainy and overexposed, the post-blast sequences provoke an anxious shiver. Elsewhere, though, scenes are so poorly lit that you can't tell what's going on. The action sequences in The Sum of All Fears are distinguished by their muddiness; some of them look as if they were shot on Super 8 by a cinematographer with the DTs.

Watching the Jack Ryan films, you can understand why Tom Clancy was such a fixture on network news shows last fall. The appeal of his fiction is the same as that of his analysis: expertise unburdened by context. Even as his titles grow more baroque (Clancy fans can presumably look forward to Preferred Freedoms Doctrine and Least Restrictive Means Test), his books remain routine cold-war porn. Clancy's version of the U.S. intelligence apparatus is reassuringly conservative: The barbarians may be howling at the gate, but at least the ramparts of civilization are still manned primarily by crusty old white guys. Indeed, The Sum of All Fears has been heartily endorsed by CIA spokesmen for its flattering portrayal of their agency. (As opposed to that proffered by, say, the nightly news?)

Despite all the political and technical gibberish that gets tossed around in the Ryan films, though, they're essentially apolitical: Clancy's heroes are nothing more than effective technocrats and competent spooks. Maybe that's why so much of the conversation in these movies ends up sounding like terse exchanges between coked-up accountants. ("Get me the goddamn 1099-R before the Russians itemize their '02 deductions!") There may be something reactionary about this insurance salesman-turned-anxiety salesman--who, after all, really hit the big time when Ronald Reagan endorsed his Hunt for Red October. But it's hard to get too bent out of shape about The Sum of All Fears; it's just a grade-B disaster movie puffed up with its own portentousness--Dr. Strangelove played with a straight face.

Then again, since General Turgidson and President Muffley appear to be ascendant these days, maybe it's time to reconsider the implications of Clancy's paranoid, techno-militarist wet dream. Insofar as The Sum of All Fears feels like a coming-attractions ad, it efficiently whets the appetite for its own tentatively titled sequel: Destination Baghdad.

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