The Sum of All Fears (2002)

[30 May 2002]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

Guys

Awash in explosions and plotted out the wazoo, full of sinister villains, exotic locations, and itself, the fourth Jack Ryan movie is also distressingly out of date. This despite the current campaign to make it loom as a dramatically relevant enterprise: between CNN’s recent discussions of the film’s application to the War Against Terrorism and ET‘s “Special” on the franchise history (including interviews with previous Jack Ryans, Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford), you’d think Phil Alden Robinson’s movie is some kind of Momentous Event, rather than what it is—a well-appointed action pic.

The film’s gargantuan set-piece, as everyone knows because of the trailer that’s been circulating for months, is a nuclear explosion, specifically, a nuclear explosion in Baltimore, at the Superbowl, no less, where the President is attending in a display of public confidence and national unity. You know how important those displays are. Oddly, this particular version of a Worst Case Scenario is equally mundane and horrific. How awful to imagine such a thing, no matter how many mushroom clouds Arnold and his ilk have survived. And how outrageous to imagine that, as long as CIA Super Analyst Jack Ryan (here played by Ben Affleck, working really hard to grimace like he means it) is on the case, everything’ll be okay.

What with the action-heroics and all (including mighty leaping and driving through nuclear dust, arctic hinterlands, flaming streets, and demolished buildings, which moves Jack learns from his buddy, Field Agent/Recon Guy [appropriately taciturn Liev Schreiber]), the film’s vision of survival is pretty unreal, as is its political-moral-military naiveté—all very duck-and-cover. The villains are easy to keep track of here, which is, I suppose, the greatest mythology of all, and the film’s primary device to get you hooked up with Jack. He knows, you know. He always knows. You might say that knowing is his métier.

At the same time, Ryan’s expertise and incessant insight, even as a youngster (for this film takes place before the others, strangely, and more on that below), make The Sum of All Fears feel dated. As a representative of his Agency, Consider that it posits the CIA doing a bang-up job of monitoring terrorists, Nazi plots, and wayward nuclear devices, not to mention the untrustworthy Russians. Even if the Administration’s most recent anti-terrorist action-decision is to send CIA analysts round to FBI offices to interpret the Feds’ data (as clearly, they’re having trouble doing it themselves), the truth is that public faith in the Agency has waned, seriously. And it was waning long before 9-11. Since that day, of course, Jack Ryan’s fictional world (as concocted by techno-thriller novelist and former insurance broker Tom Clancy) is looking older and older, in particular his tendency to make personal action heroics into solutions to international crises. Very, very pretty to think so.

But no matter. Logic, narrative or temporal, is largely irrelevant for Ryan’s world. Directed by Phil Alden (Sneakers, Field of Dreams) Robinson, The Sum of All Fears (based on Clancy’s 1991 novel of the same name) provides backstory for Ryan. It’s delivered in neat little bits, such that the characters are more types than, well, characters. So, you learn how Ryan came by his reputation as the CIA’s Smart Guy, mainly, it appears, by interpreting events in ways that none of his superiors can even imagine, much less believe, then going round them to make nice with the wily new Russian Guy, also known as President Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds). The White House Boss Guys (including James Cromwell as President Fowler, Philip Baker Hall as Secretary of Defense, Ron Rifkin as Secretary of State, Bruce McGill as National Security Advisor) all assume Nemerov is a shifty bastard, because they’re living a couple of decades back, when Bad Guys were defined, in the U.S. at least, by their nationalities. Ryan knows better, because he’s written A Paper on Russian Guy, and knows he is ambitious and cagey, as opposed to bitter and aggressive. Ryan’s mentor, sagacious CIA chief Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman), knows better because, well, he has faith in his mentee.

Pre-Ford-Baldwin Ryan is brash, smart, and thrillingly workaholic, which means that he’s just started dating the pretty and infinitely patient doctor, Cathy Muller (perky Bridget Moynahan), who will eventually become his pretty and infinitely patient wife (Anne Archer in the Harrison Ford movies). Since you know Jack’s life is going to take a certain course (he’ll become a respected senior analyst, marry Cathy, have kids and live in a big house), it’s hard to be too worried by the many clear and present dangers that pop up—say, a nuclear warhead that’s been missing since the Israelis lost it in the desert in 1973. He can’t die. Shoot, he can’t even be seriously maimed. And so, Jack Ryan persists. Even, quite preposterously, in the face of that nuclear blast. He’s in a chopper, rushing to the scene, trying desperately to get the message out—“The bomb is in play!!”—and whooomp! he’s hit by the rolling edge of the smoky, fiery, hot-air explosion. Chopper goes down. Ryan gets up.

Let’s just say upfront: Clancy’s novels and the movies they spawn have never had much truck with credibility. The bomb gets to the U.S. via the machinations of Dressler (Alan Bates), an intensely nasty Austrian Neo-Nazi Guy with a ferocious grudge against the axis that beat down Hitler and apparently limitless cash-flow. He pays various minions to hunt down the missing nuke and steals three Russian scientists to put the pieces together (so you see: the junior NATO-ites do have a part in this catastrophe, after all). His goal is to set in motion WWIII, by making the utterly clueless and enthusiastically hawkish U.S. leaders believe the deed is done by Russian terrorists. That the U.S. Cabinet initially falls whole hog for the ploy is necessary to make Ryan look brilliant, but it’s a tedious device. And it may give pause, since most folks making the Sunday news shows these days don’t look any more energetic or astute than the cardboard types here.

The bomb’s detonation is spectacular, all billowing flames and smoke and debris, and not much in the way of bodies or limbs or bloody flecks, the kind of stuff that does tend to fly around under such circumstances. You might be tempted to gawk and say to yourself, “It’s like a movie.” And then, of course, you’d realize, it is a movie. Hence, you know, the likeness.

That such a device might be smuggled in through what passes as U.S. security now doesn’t look as farfetched as it might have when the film was conceived. But the explosion per se stretches the film’s believability factor considerably, in that nearby key characters survive the bomb. I probably don’t need to tell you who doesn’t survive, because you’ve seen enough of these sorts of movies to know which characters are not only expendable, but also ennobled by dying for the Greater Good. Of course, Ryan lives, as does the increasingly grumpy Fowler, pushed quite over the edge by his assailants’ sheer nerve, not to mention their devious excess. “They fucking tired to kill me!” he points out, as if to explain his decision to seek major vengeance. Those Evil Ones: no telling what kind of rage they’re going to bring on themselves.

Predictably, Jack’s day-saving ends up looking anti-climactic after this special-effects jamboree. Who knew how simple international politicking and war-making could be? Jack only has to bust into high security government offices, get past Gruff Uniformed Guys, convince Guard Guy to let him use the top secret communications equipment, then get Superpower Head-Guys to back off, to recognize the malevolence that lurks among them in the form of Rich Racist Guy. Thank goodness for Young Cocky Guy.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/sum-of-all-fears/