Bill McCuddy Talks With Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck is a fast talker. But he's not a con, he doesn't have snake oil. What he does have is a new movie that may disturb some people. And he knows it.

He wants to make sure I get the whole picture. The Sum of All Fears has Affleck the actor assuming a role that used to belong to Alec Baldwin and then Harrison Ford. He's the new Jack Ryan, star of a series movies based on Tom Clancy books. But Affleck the writer and producer knows the role comes with a little extra baggage. Made before Sept. 11, the film shows a nuclear bomb going off in Baltimore.

Bill McCuddy: You've been quoted as saying you'll understand if some people don't want to go see this thing. How'd the studio take that?

Ben Affleck: (Nervous laugh) Uh, they didn't call me about it, I don't know. I will understand, absolutely. Look it's not compulsory. And I don't think, in the same way that if you had a relative let's say, that just passed away recently from cancer, and they were very close to you, you might not want to go see a movie about someone dying of cancer.

McCuddy: But a bomb going off and in Baltimore is not some individual dying of cancer.

Affleck: No, but tragedy and sadness is kind of universal, whatever form it takes. If you feel deeply affected or so traumatized that you don't necessarily want to see anything that has anything to do with terrorism, anything that has to do with the dangers we face in the world, I mean you'd also have to not watch television, I certainly would understand that. But by the same token, I'm really proud of the movie. I think it's smart. I think it's well told by the director. And I think it's not just about terrorism but about recovering from disaster.

McCuddy: Well, have we recovered? As someone, not just an actor, but as a filmmaker who sits down and actually writes these things, do you think we've recovered as a nation?

Affleck: No. I mean, that would sort of ... I mean we've recovered from World War II. We've recovered as a nation from Vietnam, but huge, traumatic incidents like this take years and years and years before you can sort of, before it's still not a raw nerve for some people, before it doesn't provoke heated debate and really kind of engender intense feelings.

McCuddy: There were other Pearl Harbor movies before the one you were in, but still there was a long period of time before we addressed that in motion pictures.

Affleck: Well, I mean during World War II they were making war movies.

McCuddy: But those were propaganda sort of 'feel-good-the-Nazis-are-all-bad' kind of movies.

Affleck: Right. Yes, they were. Some of them were. I mean, you can argue that they've all been those movies. I mean, there's no movie trying to show the even-handed side of the second World War.

McCuddy: We call it 'Fair and Balanced' at Fox News.

Affleck: (Laughs) You know, we made the movie before September 11, obviously, trying to make a movie that was kind of a political thriller a kind of grown-up summer movie and without changing the movie at all, it turned into a drama. And it turned into something that's much more powerful and intense. It has nothing to do with how the movie was made. It has to do with the shared collective experience of the audience now.

McCuddy: And what's the message for those people who do show up?

Affleck: Well, I think there are several of them. I think, chief among them is that disasters and traumas are recoverable events and that it's important to move on with life. I think the more specific messages have to do with raising awareness. Tom Clancy wrote this as a cautionary tale 12 years ago about being aware of the possibility of domestic terrorism, which obviously now we're aware of. But also, secondarily about the need to pay attention to issues that seem like they don't have anything to do with us.

McCuddy: Well that's the movie...

Affleck: The former Soviet Union and the nuclear arsenal and the scientists there and stuff that we think of as totally out of our sphere and irrelevant to us, is in fact, I think ... Clancy wanted to raise people's awareness of those dangers.

McCuddy: You are a rogue guy inside the system who tries to tell everybody, 'Hey wait a minute, something's going on here.' And then when it happens you say, 'No, the people you think are responsible, aren't.' Did you meet anyone like that in the CIA?

Affleck: Well I think, yeah, I met a lot of people who were ... What happens is you often times have differences of opinion.

McCuddy: But that's an organization that you think tolerates a squeaky wheel? Or a guy who says 'Wait a minute, hold on.'

Affleck: Well he (Jack Ryan) is not particularly tolerated. I mean, as you see from recent events in fact, with the FBI and the CIA, now there's a lot of looking back into one guy in Phoenix said this, and one guy, his supervisor, didn't want to hear it. And you see that even within government bureaucracies people have differences of opinion. That's one of the ways in which people feel kind of limited by bureaucracies, that sometimes they tend to stifle that. And you see the Ryan character to a certain degree gets stifled by the bureaucracy in the course of trying to bring this stuff to light.

But I think any agency that doesn't tolerate differences of opinion, in fact doesn't cultivate that, particularly in analysis, does itself a huge disservice. And the CIA, in my experience visiting them, albeit only for a couple of days, certainly does. They certainly want to provoke debate, engender discussion. I think they subscribe to the Jeffersonian model of debate, which is that only with the most thorough and rigorous debate can the actual truth emerge.

McCuddy: Now there's going to be some debate about your in this role because you are sort of time travel in this thing.

Affleck: (Laughs) Right, right, right.

McCuddy: We should explain.

Affleck: Right.

McCuddy: The part has been played by older guys in modern day. Now you're younger...

Affleck: ... in modern day. Yeah, basically it's just a dramatic conceit. Either you go with it or you don't.

McCuddy: You're like a new James Bond.

Affleck: (Laughs) Sort of, yes. I mean, in the same way that James Bond was current and the same age in the '60s and he's the same age now, in 2002. But, yes.

McCuddy: So who'll play him next? Haley Joel Osment?

Affleck: (Laughs) I hope so.

McCuddy: They get younger and younger.

Affleck: We're gonna start out with what kind of pacifier Ryan used in the cradle. (Laughs)

Yeah, it's basically taking (the story) back, making it a contemporary story as you said, but showing him younger, which is a side that we just haven't seen. I think what happens is they wanted to provide for more room for the character to grow, ultimately, assuming Harrison (Ford) dropped out. If Harrison wanted to do it, I'd be buying a ticket (to the movie.) But, you know, what they wanted to show was that because what happens is even with the books, he's advanced so much. He's the president of the United States. There's not a lot of ... There's nothing left for him, Ryan, to do.

McCuddy: Right.

Affleck: So you take him back, have him starting off. He's just meeting the woman he'll ultimately marry. He hasn't told her he works for the CIA. He doesn't quite know when to keep his mouth shut. He's unpolished in terms of the politics with the CIA and Washington. He's kind of got only a vague sense of how to handle and acquit himself within the agency. And then you have the first time he ever meets the director, the first time he's in the room with the president. So it gives room for the character to have an arc, which I thought was an interesting take on it.

McCuddy: We'll see if fans go see that 'arc.'

Affleck: I hope so.

The movie The Sum of All Fears opens May 31st.