'Sum' signals change since 9/11

Times change, and popular entertainment changes with them.

"The Sum of All Fears," the fourth Tom Clancy novel to make it to the screen, arrives amid second-guessing about just how much popular entertainment has changed in the wake of Sept. 11.

Paramount is so concerned about whether audiences can take terror as entertainment after seeing a real American city in flames from a terrorist attack that it is going to great lengths to play up the patriotic angle, emphasizing the contribution of the United States military to the film. In a rare move, the studio premièred the movie in Washington. The audience was packed with Pentagon and political figures, part of an effort to give the film a patriotic stamp of approval.

The film depicts a nuclear explosion set off by terrorists in a major American city. The suggested scope of damage is immense – a packed football stadium is ground zero. Casualties would surely number in the hundreds of thousands. Yet viewers are given a short, fairly routine vision of what kind of hell a nuclear blast in a dense setting would wreak. We see a few quick hospital shots and then return to the core story line, a political thriller.

A young CIA analyst, Jack Ryan (petulantly played by Ben Affleck), is racing another nuclear clock, trying to avert war with Russia. He's the only one with the information to stop the global tragedy that looms as the heads of both countries try to figure out who bombed Baltimore. The real villains have set up a chain of events that aims to deceive the two former Cold War foes into launching tit-for-tat nuclear attacks.

For those who like to read the movies for what they say about the cultural zeitgeist, it is the final moments of the film that speak. The now friends-in-arms Russian chief and American president (played by James Cromwell) sign treaties while high-ranking intelligence officers of each country's government coolly and efficiently assassinate the real bad guys.

In similar fashion, the recent two-hour finale of the hit television series "The West Wing," depicted an American president, played by Martin Sheen, sitting through a theater performance while agents of the US military methodically slay the unsavory head of another country.

"Sum" director Phil Alden Robinson sets his killings to the tune of Puccini's aria "Nessun Dorma" from the opera "Turandot." It doesn't take much film history to recall that 30 years ago another monumental milestone in popular entertainment used the same device, with quite another subtext. In the conclusion of two of the "Godfather" trilogies, mobsters gun down their enemies to the strains of Italian opera.

Not too long ago, Western culture accepted the idea that it was a sign of the highest moral strength that our heroes had the self-restraint to make even our most heinous villains face the rule of law. It was thought to be bad for the heroes to play both judge and executioner.

For a long time, popular entertainment reflected that idea. "West Wing" writer Aaron Sorkin no doubt intended at least some element of a cautionary tale, as his president is not smiling during the execution the way Cromwell smiles in "Fears."

If nothing else, this film may stand as a cultural testament to how times really have changed since Sept. 11 – and not necessarily the way we'd expect.

• Rated PG-13; contains violence, disaster images, and some profanity.

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