The Sum of All Fears
Who's Got The Nuke?
By Cole Smithey

"Now Ben, I want you to be honest. Do these glasses make me look effeminate?"

A stolen nuclear bomb threatens to ignite a full blown nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia in this witty worse case scenario satire. Screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne rev up the Tom Clancy (Patriot Games) action novel to present a doomed-by-stupidity oval office self-destructing under the threat of nuclear attack. Cigarettes and tobacco are a particular target of ridicule in a movie where upstart CIA Analyst/Historian Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) has to personally email the president of Russia to grasp for peace in an 11th hour crisis. Great dialogue and a couple of impressive action sequences compensate for the film's predictable and cheesy third-act ending. (Affleck replaces earlier incarnations of Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin as a young Ryan - in a move designed to revitalize the franchise.)

The 'war' movie genre is back to stay, but with drastic changes since its last good spate when Apocalypse Now was followed by movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, and more recently, Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down.

The Sum of All Fears is a post-modern action/war romp centered on chain-of-command issues emanating from the war room of the White House rather than the grit of ground combat. Instead we get an ignorant circle of White House decision-makers led by a dolt of a President making the kind of hawkish decisions for which America has become famous.

Morgan Freeman plays William Cabbot, a dignified and well-informed director of the CIA. As mentor to think-tank expert Jack Ryan, Cabbot is the man most likely to make a positive difference, but must necessarily be pulled back from the story so that Ryan can, well, save the world from nuclear destruction. This is a big budget Hollywood movie after all.

Early in the story, an American jet is shot down carrying a nuclear bomb, which is later dug up and sold by sand scavengers to a ruthless industrialist intent on bringing U.S. and Russian super-powers to their knees. When Cabbot and Ryan go on a nuclear bomb inspection inside Russia's top-secret missile plant after meeting Russia's wily President Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), Ryan notices that three key scientists are missing from the group. It isn't long before a terrorist bomb blast in Grozny is assigned to the Russians, pressing the government to take credit for the attack so as to seem guilty rather than impotent.

Ryan is soon promoted to apprentice spy under the tutelage of hotshot foreign operative John Clark (Liev Schreiber) long enough to go on a fact-finding mission that turns up the missing scientists. Ryan's continuous continent jumping never causes the slightest jetlag and his command of multiple foreign languages saves the day a couple of times.

Things go wildly out of control as the path of the newly reconstructed nuke is traced to Baltimore, Maryland for a possible detonation at a huge football stadium. A tangle of surprise plot twists find Ryan stuck out in the cold trying to get crucial information to the U.S. President (James Cromwell) about the Yankee origin of the plutonium inside a bomb presumed to be from the Russians.

The story is just plausible enough to support the carefully maintained romance that buds between surgical resident Dr. Cathy Moynahan (Bridget Muller) and Ryan. Deft dialogue thankfully avoids sentimental cliches as the romance becomes more about the lovers being apart than together.

Director Phil Alden Robinson expertly balances the film's alternating tongue-in-cheek tone with its brutal reality of a nuclear threat. But things do get cartoonish when certain cast members survive impossible situations and a massive aircraft carrier miraculously remains afloat after being severely bombed by Russian ICBMs.

Still, that's part of the Pink Panther element to the movie that makes things like its constant riffing on romance, launch codes, and the evil of cigarettes all the more enjoyable.