Back in my drugstore retailing days, I had a pharmacist colleague who liked to keep a baseball bat by his side during his shifts at a late-pharmacy in a rough neighborhood... 'just in case'. However, as the police would tell you, by having a weapon within reach, you run the risk of having that weapon taken away and used against you. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened to my colleague. Of course, this scenario is not limited to the realm of retailing, as it has also been played out on the international stage. A most recent example is the Anthrax scare that came in the aftermath of September 11th. In May of this year, investigators confirmed that the strain of the lethal bacteria originated from the U.S. government's own Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases-- a perfect example of a government's actions coming back to 'bite them in the ass'. Recent history is rife with numerous other examples of such 'backfires', such as the CIA's recruitment of former Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega, the Iran-Contra scandal, and American support for the Mujahideen resistance during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, some of which ended becoming the Taliban. This is the message behind "The Sum of All Fears", the latest filmed adaptation of a Tom Clancy military thriller, where a misplaced and forgotten nuclear bomb ends bringing the United States and the Russia to the brink of all-out nuclear war.
"The Sum of All Fears" features Clancy regular Jack Ryan, an analyst for the CIA. This time around, Ben Affleck (seen recently in "Changing Lanes") steps into the shoes of Ryan, who had previously been played by Alec Baldwin in "The Hunt for Red October" and Harrison Ford in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger". A prequel to the other films, "The Sum of All Fears" has Ryan as a relatively unknown low-level clearance rookie working at Langley. But under the leadership of CIA director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman of "Deep Impact"), he uncovers a plot by a Neo-Nazi industrialist to trigger a war between the two superpowers using a recently recovered Israeli nuclear bomb that has been lost for almost thirty years. Their plan is to detonate the nuclear device during a Superbowl game attended by the President (James Cromwell of "Space Cowboys"), escalating the already heightened tensions between the American government and the newly installed Russian President (Ciaran Hinds, who will be seen later this summer in "The Road to Perdition"), who is ruffling feathers with his apparent hard-line stance on Chechnya.
Those familiar with the novel will notice that the story has been condensed and reworked significantly, yet still remains true to the spirit of the book. While the book presented a daisy chain of small events involving disaffected individuals, extremists, and unscrupulous entrepreneurs that culminate into a potential global catastrophe, the terrorist plot in the film has been trimmed down to a more manageable size. Nonetheless, it still remains chillingly plausible, especially in light of September 11th and the subsequent 'new war' on terrorism. Instead of Middle Eastern terrorists, the villains have been changed to the far less controversial Neo Nazis. And instead of the book's climactic tank battle in a divided Berlin (the book was written prior to Germany's reunification), the film offers an equally impressive Russian jets attack an American aircraft carrier in the North Sea.
Though the pacing is somewhat on the slow side, "The Sum of All Fears" is able to maintain audience interest as the script by Paul Attanasio ("Sphere") and Daniel Pyne ("Any Given Sunday") gradually ratchets up the tension, especially in the film's presentation of the unthinkable, when the nuclear device detonates in the city of Baltimore. Less than a year ago, this scene would have been taken as just another special effect-laden movie spectacle, but in the context of today's world, it is simply chilling. This is then followed by some nail-biting rising action as Ryan tries to track down evidence that the bombing was not the work of the Russians. Meanwhile, in scenes reminiscent of the 1989 HBO made-for-TV movie "By Dawn's Early Light", high-level government officials on both sides, working with incomplete information, make fateful decisions that push the world ever closer to all-out nuclear war.
Unfortunately, "The Sum of All Fears" is not perfect. One major disappointment is the impossibly happy ending that is tacked on at the end, which somehow conveniently forgets that a few hundred thousand people were vaporized in Baltimore. In addition, it seems implausible that Ryan (not to mention numerous other characters) shows no signs of radiation poisoning, even though he has been wandering around in the fallout-coated and burning ruins of Baltimore, breathing in radioactive dust. It is also interesting that despite the nuclear blast, Ryan's cell phone and wireless Internet are still working after Baltimore has been leveled (who knows, maybe the CIA exclusively uses satellite communications).
In terms of performances, Affleck is tolerable as a younger and greener Jack Ryan, though he shows nowhere near the depth he showed in "Changing Lanes". Freeman is, as usual, reliable with his commanding presence as Cabot, as are Cromwell and Hinds as the American and Russian presidents. Liev Schreiber ("Kate & Leopold") acquits himself decently playing another Clancy regular, covert operative John Clark (played previously by Willem Dafoe in "Clear and Present Danger"), while Bridget Moynahan ("Coyote Ugly") fills the shoes of a younger Dr. Cathy Muller (played by Anne Archer in the other films), whom Ryan is still dating at this point. Also making an appearance is Affleck's costar in "Pearl Harbor", Colm Feore, who plays a South African arms dealer.
"The Sum of All Fears" was greenlit for production prior to last September, and like many films that have been recently released (most notably "Training Day" and "Spy Game"), it has taken on a whole new meaning. Instead of merely being yet another big summer movie, "The Sum of All Fears" is a cautionary tale about the proliferation of the tools and technology of mass destruction, and how truly vulnerable we are in today's increasingly connected world. Good, but not great, the timing of "The Sum of All Fears" couldn't be better.