Unless you count the endearingly daft Collateral Damage, The Sum of All Fears is the first studio movie about a terrorist attack on the United States to appear since September 11. Right on cue, the pundits are agonizing about whether the latest in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan franchise will trample all over the delicate sensibilities of post–World Trade Center America. Meanwhile, Hollywood, with its customary finesse, is asking itself pretty much the same question: Will the movie sell? In fact, they‘re all barking up the wrong tree. Quite aside from the fact that moviegoers go to action pictures with every intention of being scared silly, The Sum of All Fears — which was made before last fall — has little to do with the actual circumstances of the attack on the twin towers.

True, the movie is premised on the fact that when it comes to bombs and lethal viruses, the freelancers are in charge — but the freelancers aren’t who you‘d think. Plain gullibility is the worst flaw of the two Arabs we see, early on in the movie, as they accidentally uncover an old Israeli nuclear warhead gone AWOL during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They sell it for an absurd $400 to a South African arms dealer (Canadian actor Colm Feore), who licks his thin lips as he counts the millions to be made from selling it to a Viennese fascist (Alan Bates) with unholy ties to a loose-cannon Russian nuclear scientist, and a strong interest in playing the United States and Russia against each other.

If The Sum of All Fears doesn’t make money, it will have nothing to do with the fear factor (though there are more than enough thrills to go ‘round), and everything to do with the fact that it’s a smartly directed, grown-up film of ideas — with a debonair script by Paul Attanasio (Donny Brasco) and Daniel Pyne — trying to pass itself off as an action picture for the low teens. Indeed, it plays like some kind of prequel to The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, with Ben Affleck — a bonny naif, complete with love interest to deliver the movie to the date market — succeeding Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford as CIA novice Jack Ryan. (And if you‘re wondering what a movie with intense if tactfully suggestive scenes of mass destruction is doing with a PG-13 rating, ask Jack Valenti, who recently raised the MPAA bar on ”disaster images,“ on the grounds that since 911 the kids have seen it all in the television news coverage anyway.)

As in these other movies, Ryan is having one of his little historian’s hunches about just who it is that‘s planning to bomb America to hell. He doesn’t believe it‘s the new Russian president, Nemerov (Irish heartthrob Ciaran Hinds, diligently applying his granite jaw to the nyets and das), a hard-liner with an itchy trigger finger. But the whey-faced functionaries around Jack — including his boss, William Cabot (Morgan Freeman, loosened up from sphinx mode and a witty relief from the hammy bombast of James Earl Jones in the previous movies), and the U.S. president (James Cromwell) — believe that it is. It falls to Ryan, who’s been dispatched as always to the thick of things, to try to avert a nuclear disaster, but not before the movie has taken a tour of the world‘s political hot spots to drop broad hints about who may have been responsible for some nasty business in a Baltimore sports arena.

Made in 1990 just after the Soviet thaw, The Hunt for Red October, based on the novel published in 1984, was predicated on an evil Soviet Union, with its defecting Russian hero, Sean Connery, dreaming of a better life in the West. Clancy published The Sum of All Fears in 1991, and the picture he paints of superpower realpolitik has shifted in ways that should make us shiver. For one thing, either he or director Phil Alden Robinson — I suspect the latter, a good Hollywood liberal — is determined not to let us off the hook: The plutonium for the warhead was made right here in America. Shot in chilly gray, The Sum of All Fears posits a new and global war, in which rogue individuals with vastly different evil agendas ratchet up the residual paranoia of uneasily reconciled superpowers and goad them into attacking each other. Here, it’s less the unanticipated attack that terrorizes than the power of fear to make people in high places panic.

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