After Sept. 11, Robert Altman attracted some controversy for asserting that Hollywood films "inspired" the attacks, saying "nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they'd seen it in a movie." That seems every bit as questionable as politicians blaming Columbine on video games, but Altman has a point: How much longer can American blockbusters continue to fantasize over mass destruction? The producers of The Sum Of All Fears, a second-rate Tom Clancy thriller, could not have predicted that their big special-effects payoff—a plot point spoiled in all the trailers and TV spots—would have so much resonance today, when America is fraught with anxiety over the prospect of large-scale terrorism on its own soil. But like the nuclear devastation in Terminator 2 or the incinerated White House in Independence Day, the detonated dirty bomb in The Sum Of All Fears is only the latest and most potent example of apocalypse porn that passes off self-annihilation as high-tech entertainment. Clancy fans might find his usual fear-mongering prescient, but the film isn't a serious work like Fail-Safe or The Day After, and it isn't remotely fun, unless viewers are blissfully detached from reality. But there's some measure of comfort in the ludicrous plot, which reconfigures Clancy's original hot-button story about Israeli-Palestinian agitation to the comparatively laughable notion of Eurotrash neo-Nazis taking over the world. Bringing little gravity to the role of Jack Ryan, the straight-arrow CIA operative played in earlier Clancy adaptations by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck plays a young, low-level analyst thrust suddenly onto the diplomatic stage. Affleck's expertise on a new Russian president (Ciarán Hinds) earns him the ear of CIA director Morgan Freeman and president James Cromwell, who try to curb retro-Cold War tensions between the two former superpowers. Meanwhile, a well-connected neo-Nazi (Alan Bates) buys an errant nuclear weapon and plans to detonate it during the Super Bowl in Baltimore, hoping that America will blame the Russian hard-liner and unleash its full military arsenal. His theory is that the resultant chaos will be fertile ground for Hitlerism on a global scale. As diabolical plots for world domination go, Bates' scheme ranks just below Telly Savalas' in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, since his Step Two involves skipping over several dozen steps in between. But since Clancy's doomsday scenarios rely on verisimilitude for effect, the cartoon villains and canyon-sized plot holes look especially silly amid the chilling topicality of the rest of the film. At once too real for escapism and too ridiculous for a credible espionage thriller, The Sum Of All Fears unfolds like a cruel joke and treats imagined human tragedy as the punchline.
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