The Sum of All Fears (2002)

D: Phil Alden Robinson
S: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman

Based upon the novel by Tom Clancy, The Sum of All Fears is the fourth of his Jack Ryan adventures to make its way to the screen. The franchise has taken some interesting turns since the last outing. For a start, the character of Ryan has been aged backward. Last seen in the distinguished grey of Harrison Ford's furrowed brow as he headed the CIA, Ryan is now played by Ben Affleck (Pearl Harbour). Here he is a callow youth working as an historian and analyst and yet to embark upon the adventures which began on screen over a decade ago in The Hunt for Red October (where he was played by Alec Baldwin). The timeline of the world has continued to move forward though, very much so. The Sum of All Fears is the first bona fide post 9/11 action movie. At a key point in its narrative (spoiler alert!) a nuclear device is detonated in a public place, contrary to the expectations of the superhero genre. In the aftermath of the explosion, characters flail about amid scenes of mass destruction which bring a temporary chill of recognition to any who have borne witness to the horrific events of 2001.

Regrettably, the chill fades in the warm glow of generic cliché as the plot unfolds. The movie becomes less about the trauma inflicted upon the American subconscious by suffering the realisation of its worst nightmare and more about how a lone American hero can save the world in the grand tradition of James Bond. Just as the British Empire's most loyal modern hero has intervened countless times to prevent the plans of meglomaniacs from taking control of the world away from its rightful masters, Affleck's Jack Ryan finds himself in the midst of an international conspiracy in which rogue neo-nazi subversives are trying to provoke nuclear confrontation between Russia and the United States. The patently absurd premise is unfortunately played with the sincerity due to it in a post 9/11 context, only with the added sanctimony of a self-satisfied neo-imperialist fantasy.

It is difficult not to think of the film in political terms. With such a provocative subject as nuclear conflict with the unstable new Russia, a title which cries out for serious reading, and being the first American film for quite some time to really follow through with a threat of scenes of mass destruction of the kind represented here, the film is far from innocent entertainment. As a political film, it ultimately fails to take responsibility and follow through with its analysis of contemporary geopolitics and the ethics of America's attitude to war. Abandoning all such concerns to the mechanics of the secret agent superhero film leaves the film to wallow in the same shallow waller as so many of its mindless predecessors.

As such The Sum of All Fears is a moderately enjoyable genre piece. Director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, Sneakers) is no action specialist, but he helms the various scenes of conflict, chase, and tension with the requisite professionalism. This does not compensate for the weaknesses of the script though, and there is nothing compelling enough to merit its recommendation other than the authentic frisson of the 9/11 scene.

Affleck is solid enough in the Ryan role, though the double-bluff of taking the character backwards in his life means that there are less contours and facets to appreciate. Ford's Ryan was no model of in-depth characterisation, but events had taken him to new places with each successive adventure, and dropping back seems as much a cynical attempt to regenerate the franchise as a challenge to the actor. Morgan Freeman gets to do little enough in roughly the same narrative position as occupied by James Earl Jones in previous outings, and though the script throws in some unexpected twists for him also, it is still not quite enough to make the characterisation noteworthy. James Cromwell gets to be President this time, though he finds the role with less edge to it than Donald Moffat found in Clear and Present Danger. Alan Bates makes a forgettable villain and other fairly distinguished actors fill out a variety of subsidiary roles. Liev Schreiber fares best as a more traditional variety of covert operative who gets to teach niave Ryan the tricks of the trade.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.