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In the latest filmic installation of Tom Clancy’s government-and-guts Jack Ryan series, Ben Affleck plays Ryan as young and rash, a precocious but prescient CIA analyst just beginning to outgrow his frat-boy days. The 29-year-old Affleck is just right for a 28-year-old Ryan, speaking out of turn to his agency superiors and cleverly sassing the scary Russian president—for which he earns the expected “I like this boy.” Screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne juggle chronology to erase memories of Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin as previous Ryans, setting the story in 2002 and pretending that The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger, and Patriot Games didn’t quite happen in this universe. This decision works very well, except for the small facts that (1) the end of the world is nigh, (2) only Ben Affleck stands between normal life and complete extinction, and (3) this is exactly not what we need to be seeing right now.

The Sum of All Fears is not the escapist entertainment vehicle for anyone who wants Dick Cheney either to tell us where not to stand when the other shoe drops or to shut the hell up about it. The movie tracks the trail of a missing Israeli nuke of murky origin as it’s unearthed from the Haifa dust, scooped up by a mysterious arms trader (Colm Feore, who looks like an evil Paul Newman), and sold to a cabal of European neo-Nazi shadow operators intent on setting Russia and the United States on a nuclear collision course by playing on both countries’ aggression and insecurity. Ryan’s on-paper expertise in the mental processes of Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), who has just ascended to the Russian presidency after his Yeltsinlike predecessor’s liver finally exploded, attracts the interest of CIA Director Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman). Cabot takes Ryan away from his Hollywood-issue-perfect girlfriend (Bridget Moynahan), a supermodel surgeon, to find out if Nemerov is the type of hardliner whose first act upon assuming leadership would be to bomb the daylights out of Chechnya, because somebody has just done that very thing. Ryan thinks not; everyone else is too pumped with international testosterone to listen.

Unlike their counterparts in every other rogue-Russian-bomb movie, The Sum of All Fears’ U.S. inspectors and spy guys don’t know there’s an unaccounted-for nuke out there. Instead, Ryan discovers that three Russian scientists have gone missing and are probably knocking together something deadly that no official government knows anything about. He and agent John Clark (Liev Schreiber), a sort of American James Bond without the chicks and cocktails, travel to Ukraine to intercept the bomb, but it’s already on its way to the Super Bowl, as is POTUS Fowler (James Cromwell).

Phil Alden Robinson, the director of Sneakers and an episode of Band of Brothers, masterfully controls the various narratives as the film cuts from Ryan’s frantic fight to be heard to the two presidents’ frustrated escalation to Clark’s consummate spycraft in various exotic locations. He pinches a great moment from the underseen The Siege, in which everyone’s cell phone begins to ring during the White House Correspondents’ dinner, and there’s a slyly funny scene in which the arms broker idly watches Antiques Roadshow as he requests $50 million from his shadowy bosses for the nuke he’s just bought for $400 from two doomed, grateful scavengers. The boys’-adventure-serial tone keeps the action compelling in a familiar way, even after—warning: spoiler ahead!—a fucking nuclear bomb fucking blows up fucking Baltimore.

Scary? Apocalyptically so, and there’s still another hour to go while the two superpowers negotiate just how they’re going to wipe each other off the face of the Earth and Ryan’s little analysis lab has to backbrief an adamant Fowler and his planeful of presidential advisers on the bomb’s real pedigree and owners. It’s a successful nail-biter, and probably appropriate to the already-shaken audience who will watch it, but all the fun feels kind of moot after—warning: spoiler ahead!—all those people are vaporized in one horrible explosion and the entire area becomes a hideous gray nuclear-winterscape.

Clancy’s story asks an interesting and timely question: How plausible is a terrorist commandeering of destructive forces, and would human fear and anger irrevocably exacerbate such a situation? And the film answers this question with lots of cool spy action, macho situation-room banter, nerve-racking cross-cutting, and a cynicism—God, let’s hope it’s cynicism and not gritty realism—that’s almost breathtaking in a Hollywood project. Granted, many moviegoers interested in seeing how the kewpie-haired Affleck inhabits Ryan’s big shoes will have read the novel. But for those who haven’t, this worst-case scenario couldn’t be more discomfiting. Even if—warning: spoiler ahead!—the end of days is narrowly averted and the superpowers’ leaders sign nice-making treaties while the bad guys are dispatched in a “Nessun Dorma”-accompanied sequence made inevitable by The Godfather, it all feels a little hollow, given that—warning: spoiler ahead!—a fucking nuclear bomb fucking blows up fucking Baltimore. CP