"Jack, we never had this discussion," Morgan Freeman tells Ben Affleck early on in The Sum of All Fears, to which Affleck replies, "What discussion?" That's what I'd call the rhetorical peak of this geopolitical thriller, which strives for the lickety-split timing of "West Wing" while leaving the screwball element behind. We get the usual shots of men (and the occasional woman) walking and talking fast while the future of the world hangs in the balance. And we're reintroduced to terms that have come to seem like old friends: alert status, launch codes, first-strike capability. Not since the last movie based on a Tom Clancy novel ' let me see here, that would be Clear and Present Danger ' have we been asked to dwell so soberly on the precariousness of our post-Cold War lives. Is it too late to rebuild the Berlin Wall?
Freeman is William Cabot, wise and wonderful head of the CIA. And Affleck is Jack Ryan, a terribly young CIA analyst who will presumably grow up to become first Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, then Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Since Baldwin and Ford were given little leeway to develop a character (Clancy's Ryan is James Bond without the martini or Pussy Galore), Affleck might have been a welcome addition to the franchise, but I'm sorry to report that he gives another of his along-for-the-ride performances. Not even Freeman is able to perk him up, although he tries. Affleck's Ryan, who spends his days watching videos of Russian leaders and jotting down notes about, say, their weight fluctuations, is supposed to be green, but not that green. Whoever cast him forgot that it takes experience to play lack of experience.
When a teetering Russian premier hits the floor, Ryan is called in to assess his replacement. But almost before he can get out his height-and-weight chart, a nuclear device explodes during the Super Bowl in Baltimore. Was it the Russians? That's what an Austrian neo-Nazi played by Alan Bates wants the U.S. to think. And because there seems to be an overall lack of red phones, the balance of terror degenerates into the balance of error. "You don't fight Russia and America," Bates says, admonishing Hitler while sounding a lot like Elmer Fudd. "You get Russia and America to fight each other." Makes sense to me, although it would have made more sense 20 years ago, when the United States and the Soviet Union were still super-rivals, or even 10 years ago, when Clancy's novel was blotting out the rest of the bestseller list.
Neo-Nazis aren't exactly at the top of our international shit list right now, and I've read that Clancy's novel featured not Nazis but a German leftist, an Arab anti-Zionist and a Native American activist. That would at least have given the movie a multiculti kookiness. As it is, everything's quite somber and gray. "I want audiences to feel the chaos of war," director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) has said. And the press kit self-salutes The Sum of All Fears for being "eerily prescient in the current political climate." But in my opinion, the movie, conceived well before Sept. 11, exploits rather than explains the current political climate. It was supposed to be Fail-Safe for the Feel-Safe Generation. But none of us feels all that safe these days. Calculators in hand, we're still adding up the sum of all our fears.