The Art of War

How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Nor was this the first Pentagon update that the onetime SAC commander shepherded through a Hollywood studio. MGM's Above and Beyond (1952) told the story of Colonel Paul Tibbets, the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; Paramount's Strategic Air Command (1955), described by Time magazine as a "soaring, supercolossal recruiting poster," introduced SAC's brand-new B-47 bombers with a peal of sacred organ music. LeMay not only endorsed Strategic Air Command but also participated in its promotion by providing exhibitors with military bands and lobby hardware displays. Warner Bros.' more modest Bombers B-52 (1957), which was somewhat overshadowed by the Soviet Union's just-launched sputniks, similarly showcased the latest SAC weaponry.

The Sum of All Fears is scarcely so comforting. A week before it opened to become the nation's top-grossing movie, a New York Times Magazine cover story warned of the inevitable nuclear terrorism that was bound to befall American cities. "Not if but when" is how Bill Keller's remarkably fatalistic "Nuclear Nightmares" began, going on to term the deployment of a high-radiation dirty bomb as "almost childishly simple." The Sum of All Fears obligingly visualizes the possibility of such a radiological dispersion device detonated by foreign terrorists at Camden Yards, where virtually the entire U.S. government is attending the Super Bowl. It's the ultimate advertisement for Homeland Security. The president's men are hustled out faster than you can say "anthrax." A frenzied attempt at poignant montage presents the American people as goofball cheerleaders, their faces painted in support of their team, idiotically oblivious to their imminent incineration.

Imagining nuclear war used to be called thinking about the unthinkable. What's startling in The Sum of All Fears is that the nuke actually happens—rolling shock waves flinging cars into the air and swatting planes to the ground, a big black mushroom cloud rising over what once was Baltimore as the movie's surviving protagonists race around the white-light radioactive inferno. As The Sum of All Fears captured its second weekend, U.S. Customs officials called a news conference to demonstrate their bomb detection capability. Meanwhile, the Chris Rock vehicle Bad Company offered a similarly radioactive terrorist scenario played for laughs. On cable, Turner Classic Movies topically offered historical perspective with a triple bill of Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe, and The China Syndrome.

The ultimate advertisement for Homeland Security: Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears
photo: Ron Diamond
The ultimate advertisement for Homeland Security: Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears

The Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence may have officially backed off its announced intention to plant disinformation in the foreign press, but it would seem that Washington takes its cues from Hollywood—as well as vice versa. Attorney General John Ashcroft timed for the Monday morning that followed The Sum of All Fears' second triumphant weekend his proud announcement that the currently beleaguered FBI and CIA had successfully collaborated on the arrest of one Abdullah al-Muhajir, born Jose Padilla in Brooklyn.

Already detained for a month since deplaning in Chicago, Padilla was being held as a military prisoner and suspected of abetting an Al Qaeda plot to produce the very scenario The Sum of All Fears so vividly illustrated—the drama of a dirty bomb detonated in an East Coast American city. The attorney general will receive another timely cue this week with the opening of Minority Report. Adapted from a 1956 Philip K. Dick short story, Steven Spielberg's new science-fiction feature posits a futuristic police force that arrests criminals before they have a chance to commit their crimes.

That Ashcroft was in Moscow when he announced Padilla's capture echoed the last-minute U.S.-Russian cooperation that, at least in The Sum of All Fears, saves both nations from Mutually Assured Destruction. Of course, these days, the MAD doctrine can no longer be considered applicable to Israel and its neighbors, the U.S. and Iraq, or India and Pakistan. Bruckheimer's spectacular World War III might well be trumped by a surprise, actual World War IV. That reality-based disaster is, however, less likely to be televised.

Research assistance: Laura Rothstein, Ben Kenigsberg

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