Whether the events of September 11 make movies like The Sum of All Fears more relevant or too close to home is a question no film critic can presume to answer for everyone. Different people will respond in different ways.
Viewed from one perspective, this adaptation of Tom Clancy’s political-military thriller from director Phil Alden Robinson (Sneakers, Field of Dreams) now seems eerily prescient (as Clancy’s work too often has). From another perspective, the film’s dreadful events play like a dress rehearsal for the next major attack on U.S. soil — an event recently described by Donald Rumsfeld as "almost inevitable."
Though constructed as an action-oriented thriller, the film’s centerpiece is a wrenching glimpse of a scenario that may be in our nation’s future, depicted in a way that’s neither sensationalized nor minimized.
If and when it does happen, we must just hope there’s someone on the scene as smart and capable as Clancy’s canny action hero, CIA agent Jack Ryan, now in his fourth big-screen outing. Although in Clancy’s stories The Sum of All Fears came after Ryan’s adventures in The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger, screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Michael Pyne have reshaped the story into a vague sort of prequel — perhaps in deference to the series’ young new star, Ben Affleck (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor), who clearly hasn’t got the mileage of the character previously played by Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin.
They’ve moved the story forward into the present, but moved Ryan’s character back in time to his days as a lowly CIA analyst not yet married to his future wife, physician Cathy Muller, played by Bridget Moynahan (Serendipity). Yet, despite the continity-bending revisionism, Ryan still displays — or should that be "already displays"? — the unerring espionage instincts that enabled him, or will enable him, to get inside the head of the captain of the Red October and to save both the man and his boat.
Ryan’s the only American in the game who can look past the political rhetoric of new Russian president Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds) and see, not a hardliner, but a moderate throwing empty bones to the hardliners. When turmoil in Chechnya results in a shocking incident involving chemical weapons, Ryan sticks his neck out by strongly suggesting that the Russian president wasn’t responsible. Then, when the unthinkable happens and the United States and Russia suddenly begin sliding toward the brink of mutual annihilation, Ryan finds himself in a race against time to prove that the Russians haven’t attacked the United States.
The Sum of All Fears has all the usual earmarks of a Tom Clancy thriller: knowledgeable insider info on the inner workings of governments and militaries, a disturbingly plausible crisis that forces us to confront just how vulnerable we really are, and reassuring last-minute heroics that pull us back from the brink and confirm America’s ability to meet any challenge. Morgan Freeman is as effortlessly authoritative as ever in the role of Ryan’s CIA mentor, and Alan Bates and Philip Baker Hall seem every inch the real deal as advisors to James Cromwell’s president of the United States.
Ben Affleck is more uneven in the lead role, though I must admit he acquits himself better than I thought he would. As the young Jack Ryan, Affleck nails that somewhat bewildered sense of purpose and determination that Ford brought to the role; and, if he lacks Ford’s presence and air of moral conviction, this can easily be ascribed to the character’s youth and lack of experience.
All the same, this younger Jack Ryan comes across as less sympathetic and less compelling than the older model, in part because he doesn’t generate the same sense of concern for other human beings. It doesn’t help that the revisionistic rewrite has him sleeping with his future wife even though their relationship is so noncommital that he won’t even call her his "girlfriend" — or that he lies to her about his work, though it doesn’t seem to be a security matter.
The rewrite causes other problems too. Watching one scene in which Ryan warns a government official that if he refuses to cooperate, "your family and my family and millions of other innocent people will be dead in half an hour," I couldn’t help reflecting that, while in the original continuity the reference to "my family" would have meant "my wife Cathy and our children," here it can only mean his (unknown to us) family of origin. Not that there’s anything wrong with a young man caring about his parents and siblings, but there’s just something compelling about a husband and father invoking the welfare of own family that’s been lost.
Of course I can’t really blame Affleck not being Harrison
Ford. These days, not even Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford. (Have
you seen Ford attempting a Russian accent in those trailers for
Still another problematic aspect of the film involves recurring Clancy character John Clark (Liev Schreiber, taking over from Willem Dafoe), a ruthless Navy SEAL who, in a brief montage after the worst is over, goes about quietly murdering everyone connected with the catastrophic attack on America, accompanied by the reassuring strains of Aram Khachaturyan’s "Ballet Suite Gayaneh" (which you might recognize from Clear and Present Danger or 2001: A Space Odyssey), while the American and Russian presidents sign new treaties aimed at reducing the world’s supply of weapons of mass destruction.
Tom Clancy, although (as I believe) a pro-life Catholic, is also apparently a hawkish military pragmatist whose views on this subject seem to reflect the attitude that "war is hell" and that either capturing a mass murderer and putting him on trial for war crimes or slitting his throat as he sits in his living room are equally ways of resolving the problem. In the showing I attended, Clark’s murderous exploits were accompanied by faint but determined applause.
However, neither Clark’s brand of military justice nor Ryan’s shallow personal and moral life are at the heart of the story. Rather, The Sum of All Fears centers on a catastrophic moment in world history and the heroic efforts of some to prevent it from escalating into a global holocaust. In these evil days, it both offers a sobering vision of our darkest fears and also holds out hope that even if the future does hold worse nightmares than September 11, we may be able to survive them as well.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.