The Sum of All Fears
Screenplay : Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne (based on the novel by Tom Clancy)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Ben Affleck (Jack Ryan), Morgan Freeman (Bill Cabot), James Cromwell (President Fowler), Liev Schreiber (John Clark), Ciar∑n Hinds (Alexander Nemerov), Alan Bates (Richard Dressler), Philip Baker Hall (Defense Secretary Becker), Bruce McGill (National Security Advisor Revel), Jamie Harrold (Dillon), Bridget Moynahan (Cathy Muller)
Roughly halfway through The Sum of All Fears, the worst thing imaginable happens: A small nuclear weapon placed by terrorists explodes in a major American city, killing tens of thousands of people and decimating a mile-wide area. During the Cold War era, the fear was that a massive nuclear strike would be launched against the U.S. by the Soviet Union, resulting in an unwinnable war that would spell the demise of humanity. Now, in the post-9/11 world, that fear has been supplanted by paranoia about suitcase-size nuclear warheads that terrorists can deposit literally anywhere, thus turning what was once the mighty weapon of superpowers into something feasible for a small, disgruntled group of religious fanatics.
The key to the tension in The Sum of All Fears is that is gets to play it both ways, where nuclear weapons are both the tool of terrorism and the threat of superpower countries waging war on each other. Based on the 1991 novel by prolific political-thriller writer Tom Clancy (the fifth in his Jack Ryan series), the film replaces Arab terrorist with well-heeled neo-Nazi fascists working out of France and Syria, which allows for a more conventional movie villain with less disturbing connections to the real world (this choice was made, by the way, before September 11). It also, of course, avoids charges of racism, since no one is likely to care much if the Aryan Nation complains about being stereotyped as homicidal maniacs.
This change from Arabic to Aryan terrorists severely dilutes the film's potential resonance with the horrors of reality, particularly because few will take seriously the idea that those who still proclaim the word of Hitler would be so well-financed and smooth, since they are generally associated with backwoods militia outfits. In this instance, realism was not the goal; rather, it was to make The Sum of All Fears a more palatable and entertaining ride, although, given its subject matter, there are elements of the film that border on the unbearable, their distanced thriller components made all-too-plausible by recent events. Thus, there is a kind of schizophrenia to the film, in which its popcorn action-adventure urges are constantly escalated beyond what was intended by the audience's frame of mind. We're likely to read more into it than is there, and some may come out thinking they've seen something profoundly disturbing, even though the filmmakers try to clean it all up in the end with an almost impossibly idyllic conclusion on the White House lawn.
One of the smartest moves the film makes is reimagining Clancy's intrepid hero, CIA agent Jack Ryan, who was played as an experienced pro by Harrison Ford in the last two Clancy adaptations (1993's Clear and Present Danger and 1996's Patriot Games), as a young CIA analyst who has never seen any real action. Portrayed this time around by Ben Affleck, Ryan is more brains than brawn, although he does have to take out a few bad guys now and then (in this genre, even the smartest must eventually resort to violence). Ryan is recast as an innocent, an eager and slightly na‘ve young go-getter who finds himself thrust into a situation that is above everyone's head, not just his own. Recruited by CIA director Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman), Ryan finds himself in a role of prominence because he happens to be an expert on Alexander Nemerov (Ciar∑n Hinds), a politician who suddenly and unexpectedly became the Russian president.
The narrative is divided into two halves, separated by the nuclear explosion. The first half follows the CIA as they try to discover why three Russian scientists are missing from a nuclear lab. It turns out that the neo-Nazis have hired them to refashion a nuclear missile that was dug out of the desert from the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt. The neo-Nazis are led by Richard Dressler (Alan Bates), who is maybe a little too conventional a movie baddie, with his wicked, polished demeanor making him more fit for the weightless thrills of a James Bond escapade. Dressler's plan is to detonate a nuclear bomb on American soil, which the U.S. would then blame on the Russians, thus sparking an all-out nuclear war between the two countries, ultimately ending in their simultaneous decimation.
The attempt to stop that from happening fills the film's second half, as Ryan stumbles through the burned-out wasteland of what used to be downtown Baltimore, feverishly tracking the source of the bomb while President Fowler (James Cromwell) and his advisers talk and argue and square off against Nemerov, who knows he isn't responsible but has no choice but to retaliate if the U.S. strikes. Interestingly enough, this part of the film plays in many ways like Dr. Strangelove (1964) played straight, which was the original intention for that film before Kubrick realized the inherent absurdity of the material and turned it into a black comedy.
There is little to laugh about In the Sum of All Fears, even though watching this doomsday scenario evolve out of assumptions and mistruths is the height of absurdity--a game of one-upmanship that might result in total annihilation. But, given the current climate and the manner in which director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, Sneakers) stages the action, it takes on a gut-churning immediacy that is hard to deny. Had this movie been released a year ago, it would have been just another political thriller with a mildly thought-provoking, but ultimately dismissable "what if" scenario. Now, it cuts all too close to the bone, intended or otherwise.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick