Some Fears Are More Welcome Than Others

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Affleck and Freeman in 'The Sum of All Fears'

Things change. Imagine this was a year ago. A movie called "The Sum of all Fears" opens. You discount the implicit hype of the title — who could possibly sum up all the angst you are prey to in the deeper watches of the night? But you truck on out to the theater, and find yourself confronting a well-made, even occasionally witty, thriller in the "Fail Safe", "Seven Days in May" vein. Once more, dear friends, on to the brink. You come away reasonably pleased with a slick Hollywood fantasy.

Now imagine it is, oh say, the end of this week. The same movie opens. And the main thing that strikes you is how irrelevant it is to your current worries, which after weeks of agitated Washington spinning, concern the apparently lively possibility of a terrorist blowing up himself and your supermarket. Or possibly your apartment building. Or the Brooklyn Bridge just as you decide to take your morning constitutional on it. You exit this film wondering if it should have been retitled: "The Sum of all Former Fears."

In fairness, it should be noted that director Phil Alden Robinson's movie (written by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne) was shot before 9/11. You also have to observe that with some 27,000 nuclear devices floating around the world the possibility of one of them falling into the hands of a rogue group — in this instance Neo-Nazis — is not entirely improbable. Nor is the possibility that they might detonate the thing in the U.S. (in Baltimore, at a Super Bowl game), hoping that we'll blame the Russians and get World War III up and running, dreaming, too, that the post-war world (or slag heap) they inherit will be safe for fascism.

But here's the problem with that scenario: it's too conventional and too rational. We got comfortable, over the years, with the old-fashioned balance of terror. It was an irrational game, but it was being played (we dearly hoped) by rational human beings. The whole black joke about Dr. Strangelove and his war room enablers lay in the way they carried their totally reasonable calculations to deliriously irrational heights.

But that's not the game we're currently playing. What's happened in America since last September is that we have been, in effect, Europeanized. Over there, some time in the 19th Century, with the rise of revolutionary and anarchist movements — see, for example, Conrad's "The Secret Agent" or any number of Hitchcock movies — the possibility of the bomb on the crowded bus, the assassination in the concert hall became a possibility that ordinary citizens learned to live with. The immediate cause of World War One was such an act. Safe behind our oceans, we Americans were largely spared the murderous results, and the collateral, largely psychological, damage, of the politics of the cellar — though, come to think of it, we did lose a couple of presidents along this dark and bloody way.

There is a certain irony in all this. At least for the foreseeable future, the damage done by an al-Qaeda bomb plot is likely to be miniscule compared to the kind of vast nuclear spasm "The Sum of all Fears" toys with. But fatalism is the only possible response to deadly games playing at that level. You can only hope the guys in suits also have their thinking caps on. If not, well Que Sera Sera as Hitch (with a little help from Doris Day) once memorably put it.

But old-fashioned terror with a new-fashioned unshaven face on it — shadowing everyone's daily lives, totally immune to negotiation (there are no hot line connections with these guys), that's another matter. We need to talk about it, we are talking about it, all the time. It is certainly not a topic for popular culture, especially the movies, to shy away from. It's always useful for a fiction to focus on, and help (if only temporarily) discharge our anxieties. You can't finally blame the people responsible for "The Sum of all Fears" for flunking this test. While they were making the movie last year, they were not privy to any FBI memos from Arizona about some weird guys taking flight training. They were probably, justifiably, pleased with their plausible, entertaining variations on standard Tom Clancy themes. Good, for example, to substitute peach fuzzy Ben Affleck for the more grizzled Harrison Ford as the novelist's surrogate, Jack Ryan. He's such a kid; why would the President and his cabinet pay attention to him? Good to have Morgan Freeman as an amusingly bemused CIA chief and mentor to Ryan, intrigued by the latter's complicated, even humane, analysis of the intelligence data but never quite certain it should override the simpler Us vs. Them scenario the President's men prefer. Good. perhaps, to have Neo-Nazis as the bad guys; they have no offendable constituency.

It's bad only to pretend that this may be a "controversial" movie, worrisome to a jittery America. Can we live with its doomsday scenario? Of course we can. And hum a few bars of "Seems Like Old Times" while we're at it. There are murkier, scarier matters to bring to light — intelligently, we may hope and pray.