Apocalypse Now

So how real do you like your reality? Don't be scared. We're not talking cold cruel light of day, 24-7, dealing-with-the-family-and-paying-the-bills reality here. Just to make things simple, let's limit the discussion at hand to the reality that really counts: movie reality. Maybe you're an old school cinema verite fan who's seen every John Cassavetes film at least twice and likes their reality straight-up, warts 'n' all. Or maybe you're more of a modern, Dogme kind of guy or gal who prefers your reality with a slice of art and aesthetic rigor. Or just possibly you're still under the spell of The Blair Witch Project and can't get enough of grainy little black-and-white films that revel in blurring reality and fantasy to the point where what's what is anyone's guess.

There's one more type of reality movie that hasn't been mentioned yet, and it might just be the oddest of them all: the Big Hollywood Action Movie that uses reality as a hook. These movies typically incorporate contemporary events and topical issues as key plot points, but that's only part of the picture. More often than not, they use the facts and fears floating around the current zeitgeist and expand on them in a sensational (some might say exploitative) way, usually coming up with a slick flick that's halfway between a political thriller and cautionary science-fiction.

The last really glaring example of this phenomenon was a few years back, with the Denzel Washington movie The Siege, a thriller/quasi-think piece that all but predicted a post-Sept. 11 world in which America is under attack by Arab and Muslim terrorists. This year's model is The Sum of All Fears, an expertly crafted and extremely scary film in which a group of terrorists smuggle in a nuclear device and detonate it on U.S. soil.

The terrorists doing the damage aren't Arabs or Muslims this time, but rather a conspiracy of Neo-Nazis, right wing fanatics and assorted nondenominational international mercenaries. As it happens, the nuke-wielding mass murderers in the Tom Clancy book on which The Sum of All Fears is based actually were Arabs, but the film's producers decided to change them to something a little less, uh, provocative. Apparently, even in reality-based thrillers, there are some things that are just a little too real for summer moviegoers in search of some old-fashioned fear without danger.

The Sum of All Fears will still be too real for many. The movie features a Bush-like Commander in Chief who can't pronounce the names of foreign countries ("Whatever," he barks when corrected), a Colin Powell-like presence played by Morgan Freeman and a power-hungry Austrian Neo-Nazi (Alan Bates) who seems all too clearly modeled after Le Pen and the countless other fascist, anti-Semitic nutcases popping up all across Europe these days.

The nutty Nazi plans to play the U.S. and Russia against each other, orchestrating attacks in each country for which the other will be blamed, and consequently triggering Armageddon (causing the movie to play out a little like Dr. Strangelove redone as a Hollywood thriller, with Bates assuming the Sterling Hayden role crossed with a Bond-ian supervillain). Given the ineffectuality of the Prez, and virtually everybody else in the official circles of higher power depicted in The Sum of All Fears, it's up to one single guy to save the world — our old pal, CIA operative Jack Ryan.

As played by Ben Affleck, this is a significantly younger and less experienced version of Jack Ryan than the ones previously rendered by Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford. Affleck's Ryan is still wet behind the ears and very skittish about engaging in hands-on spy vs. spy stuff until he has absolutely no other choice. The movie gets points by taking the time to establish the character of this new, rejuvenated Ryan, even as its plot zips along from America to Russia to Europe to the Middle East, crafting a gripping and all-too believable blow-by-blow account of the doomsday scenario that so many of us now think is "inevitable."

And then, at roughly the movie's midpoint, there it is: that long-anticipated mushroom cloud rears its iconic head, lives are lost on an unimaginable scale, and it really is the sum of all fears. The movie goes on for another hour after this point, but this is the defining moment, the hook, and it's easy to see why. The Sum of All Fears might just as well have been given the less eloquent but even more descriptive title The Shit Hits the Fan — and with good reason. Although it's substantially smarter and more politically astute than your average popcorn flick, the smartest thing of all about The Sum of All Fears is that it recognizes the value of sitting back in an air-conditioned theater and watching the world end. It doesn't get any better, or worse, than that.

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