Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:04 - Released 5/31/02

I recently mentioned that Ben Affleck is good at portraying flawed individuals. But in Phil Alden Robinson's nuclear arms thriller The Sum Of All Fears, based on the book by Tom Clancy and adapted for the screen by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, Affleck shows he is equally adept at portraying a straight arrow. Playing CIA new kid Jack Ryan (the younger version of the role played by Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin in other Clancy-based movies), whose inside information could possibly avert a global nuclear holocaust, he shows the necessary if somewhat bland integrity, and supporting players Morgan Freeman and James Cromwell are no less excellent. This is a thrilling film with good action effects and some impeccable acting, but its writers made an unfortunate choice in trying to avoid political fallout. In this screenplay, the book's original villains have been changed from Islamic extremists (which would not be well-received in light of the current situation) to Neo-Nazis (which is ridiculous in any situation). Unfortunately, director Robinson not only approved this, but chose to portray those villains, especially their leader (Alan Bates), in the most broad manner possible, with cartoonishly sinister Germans who pronounce W's like V's and leer menacingly, summarily execute traitors in their midst, and listen passionately to classical music, air-conducting while their evil plans are enacted. Give me a break.

Affleck's character Ryan is called in to help President Fowler (Cromwell) understand the mind of new Russian President Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), on whom Ryan has done extensive study. Taken under the wing of presidential advisor Bill Cabot (Freeman), he informs the cabinet that although Nemerov is usually portrayed as a hard-liner, his policies are really much less agressive. This advice comes into play when a devastating chemical weapon attack is made on Chechnya. While the missile was actually launched by rogue officers of the Russian Old Guard, Nemerov assumes responsibility to avoid looking out of control of his military. Having previously established his opposition to the Russian war there, Pres. Fowler orchestrates the necessarily vague "measured response" by putting ships in the area and promising a counterattack. But the next thing you know, a fission bomb is detonated in a Baltimore sports arena, killing thousands and wounding many thousands more (including the president and his staff), and a missile attack is made on one of the American ships. While denying responsibility would make Nemerov look ineffective, he dares not let the hostilities escalate to nuclear proportions. Meanwhile, Jack, who has proof that the Baltimore attack was not perpetrated by the Russians, desperately tries to alert President Fowler before it's too late.

This movie is exciting the way Thirteen Days is exciting, alternating between action-filled footage of scrambling jet squadrons and exploding bombs, and the inner political workings of a presidential administration under the pressure of the worst possible scenario. If it weren't for the caricaturish performances of the villains, it would have been much more believable as a whole. Affleck, Freeman, and Cromwell all do good work, very well supported by Hinds as Nemerov and several others (Philip Baker Hall, Bruce McGill, Ron Rifkin) as Fowler's cabinet members. Also present are Liev Schreiber as a CIA operative and Michael Byrne as a friendly member of the Russian government. Overall, The Sum Of All Fears is an enjoyably exciting reworking of the kind of cold-war premise author Clancy is known for. It's a tired premise, and it's got its flaws, but the present talent makes it worthwhile. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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