But when we see menacing missile silo doors inch open and hear talk of fall-out and "passive nuclear strikes," we almost feel nostalgic for films like Fail-Safe and War Games. The threat of mutually assured destruction seems long past, but with The Sum of All Fears, it all comes rushing back.
The film begins with a conflict more closely suited to modern headlines: the bloodshed in the Middle East. Specifically, it provides a footnote to Israel's 1973 war with Egypt and Syria, with an Israeli jet carrying an American-made nuke getting shot down and lost in the desert. Decades later, the bomb is recovered, falls into the wrong hands, and in an efficient recap of the international arms trade, is delivered into even worse hands.
Washington, meanwhile, is reacting to the death of the Russian president, as we see from the perspective of junior CIA analyst Jack Ryan. In most of Clancy's books, Ryan serves as hero and the audience's surrogate, but on the big screen, he's a master of changing his appearance as well. He was the spitting image of Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, a dead ringer for Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and has now become as young and cocky as Ben Affleck.
Affleck would be more convincing as the president of a party school fraternity than as Ryan, a Ph.D. who speaks several languages, including Russian. His familiarity with the new Russian president (Ciaran Hinds) gets Ryan the attention of Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman), a steely but avuncular CIA bigwig. As Cabot brings Ryan to Washington intelligence briefings and Russian disarmament inspections, they get wind of three missing nuclear scientists, whom the audience learn are connected to the recovered warhead.
Adapted by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, the film's Washington sequences have the crisp verisimilitude of "The West Wing." The president (James Cromwell) cracks bad jokes during a speech at a White House correspondents' dinner, but they're unfunny in a way that would be right at home on C-SPAN. The domestic scenes steady us through the murky, seemingly random nature of the global goings-on, cutting between such no-goodniks as a slick arms dealer (Colm Feore) and a wealthy neo-Nazi (Alan Bates), who functions as the film's scheming Osama bin Laden.
We put the pieces together almost simultaneous with Ryan as the film builds to an act of terrorism reminiscent of Black Sunday. When a catastrophe strikes (as revealed in the film's trailers), The Sum of All Fears truly lets the adrenaline loose. Director Phil Alden Robinson accelerates the pace and makes chilling use of special effects, with hazy cinematography and muffled sound reproducing the disorientation that follows a calamity.
As events spin out of control, the last act plays like an expert throwback to the disaster films of the 1970s. The Sum of All Fears ends with an effective reminder that, despite arms control treaties, we still have the capacity to annihilate the world several times over. The Cold War thrillers it emulates invariably had the same message, and it hasn't gone out of style.