Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 30, 2002
The Sum of All Fears\r\nStarring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Phil Alden Robinson. Written by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, based on Tom Clancy’s novel. Rated PG-13.\r\n
Blast from the Past

A nuclear doomsday scenario is anything but radioactive in The Sum of All Fears.

By Kristian Lin

This review of The Sum of All Fears begins with a quasi-spoiler alert. It’s not a full-fledged spoiler, because the event in question features prominently in the movie’s trailer and tv spots, and because it’s also in the Tom Clancy novel on which the film’s based. The story turns on a nuclear explosion caused by a cabal of European right-wing extremists trying to start World War III. They steal an atomic warhead and set it off in Baltimore during the Super Bowl. (It’s the Super Bowl in Clancy’s book, anyway. The National Football League apparently didn’t approve the use of its name and logos for the film, so we get football players decked out in chintzy fake uniforms which look like castoffs from the XFL.)

Anyway, the Russian government is framed for the resulting holocaust, and here’s where this handsomely appointed but largely unexciting thriller dates itself. It isn’t that the idea of a nuclear bomb going off on U.S. soil is far-fetched. On the contrary, the idea seems far closer to home than it did in 1991, when Clancy conceived it. The movie feels dated because, although we see the explosion and some urban wreckage, the disaster never really registers. These days, it’s easier to imagine the psychic impact and human toll of a blast that levels a major U.S. city and kills untold numbers of people. This movie, however, never bothers to try, never humanizes the tragedy or gives much thought to the victims. The filmmakers treat Baltimore’s devastation as a mere plot point. We’re just supposed to be caught up in the espionage story that ensues. The explosion remains in the realm of the slightly unpleasantly hypothetical. It’s typical of the film’s attitude that the president of the United States (James Cromwell), who narrowly escapes the blast, later characterizes the situation thus: “Let’s not forget how this whole thing started! They tried to kill me!”

Where Clancy’s novel cast Arab terrorists as the villains, the film substitutes neofascists led by a closet Nazi (Alan Bates, struggling with an Austrian accent and penny-dreadful dialogue that reduces him to a boogeyman). The change was made before the events of last September, and it’s just as well, considering that the filmmakers here couldn’t have handled Arab villains without shortchanging the complexities of politics in the Middle East. Director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, Sneakers) moves the film along at a decent clip, but he’s too conventional a filmmaker to do much with the material except package it so that it looks like any other Hollywood spy thriller rooted in a Cold War mentality. He should have taken a cue from the movie’s title and given us a nuclear apocalypse that truly amounted to the sum of all fears.

The hero of this piece is a younger version of Clancy’s superspy hero, Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck). Instead of being a middle-aged CIA honcho with a long list of accomplishments behind him, he’s a green, nervy intelligence analyst who suddenly becomes hot property in the agency when his prediction about the identity of Russia’s new president comes true. After the nuclear attack, his research into the man becomes even more crucial. Convinced that Russia and its president (Ciarán Hinds) are innocent of the bombing, Jack has to prove that the bomb came from somewhere else before the U.S. launches a counterattack and plunges into a full-fledged war.

Affleck is cursed with leading-man looks and talents that are better for playing flawed, unheroic men and outright bad guys. He doesn’t have the authority for the part, although in his defense, screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne give so little insight into the character of Jack Ryan that few actors could have done much with it. The best performances come from the supporting roles. Morgan Freeman always seems to be inwardly chuckling at something. As the CIA director who mentors Ryan, he uses his cat-like sense of humor to give shading to his character’s buttoned-up exterior. Liev Schreiber brings a disturbing efficiency to his role as a CIA assassin. Irish actor Hinds invests the Russian president with a gloomy dignity. The U.S. president’s advisors are played by Philip Baker Hall, Bruce McGill, and Ron Rifkin, a veritable gallery of Hey! It’s That Guys. (Log on to if you’re not sure what that means.)

Their work, though, is small recompense for an expensive, dull, unimaginative Hollywood movie that isn’t nearly as timely as it thinks. The Sum of All Fears might have passed for a crackerjack thriller in 1993. Viewing it now, its biggest accomplishment is making a nuclear doomsday scenario look passé.

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