The Sum of All Fears

"It adds up. You just don't like what it adds up to."

The Sum of All Fears, the latest adaptation of a sprawling Tom Clancy novel, works on the levels you would expect it to but doesn’t go the extra mile. Yes, a nuclear bomb does explode in a Baltimore stadium roughly halfway through the film, and the explosion and its aftermath are compelling, breathtaking, devastating. But seeing something like that on screen is an instinctively visceral experience, something not very difficult to pull off with today’s technology; it’s hardly surprising that it has an effect, especially post-9/11. The problem lies elsewhere: the epic, globe-spanning political intrigue that made Clancy famous is shockingly uninteresting in this installment. At times, Phil Alden Robinson’s movie made me yearn for the true-life trappings of Thirteen Days, a film I chastised for sticking too closely to the history books.

The role of Jack Ryan, embodied by Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games is now handed to Ben Affleck, who’s better suited to playing befuddled lawyers than straight-up action heroes. Ryan is a CIA researcher recruited by top-level operative William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) to provide insight into the little-known successor of the Russian presidency. The US fears that the new ruler is a militant, who will become aggressive should the US interfere in international politics.

Then the big boom happens, and the US government, headed by President Robert Fowler (James Cromwell) and Defense Secretary Becker (Philip Baker Hall) has no doubt that the Russians are responsible, and are quick to begin retaliation, which would end in an even bigger disaster. Only Ryan and Cabot know that the explosion was the work of Fascist terrorists planning to destroy the two superpowers by pitting them against each other.

In the Clancy novel, the terrorists were actually Arabs, but after receiving complaints from Arab anti-defamation activists, they became neo-nazis, with the head-honcho played by Alan Bates. It doesn’t make any sense, utterly disconnecting the movie from reality despite its attempts at verisimilitude. This sort of exercise is similar to the systematic surgical removal of any image of the Towers from pop culture: an utterly pointless effort that underscores the disaster instead of downplaying it.

That blunder spearheads my list of issues with the plotting in The Sum of All Fears. Why, for example, does an ostensibly serious movie about impending nuclear war so often reduce its characters to stumbling around dark warehouses with flashlights? What the hell happened to Liev Schreiber’s role as CIA stealth man? (He shows up a couple of times to supply the story with convenient assistance only to disappear again; I’m willing to bet that his part was severely curtailed from the original script.) And why didn’t I care, not even for a second, about anything not directly involving the explosion itself?

I think it’s because director Robinson fails to translate the conflict to an epic scale befitting Clancy. The Sum of All Fears is in many ways the opposite of Spy Game: whereas that film could have done with more kicks and punches to back up all the cinematographic razzle-dazzle, The Sum of All Fears remains too much of a semi-intelligent actioner to do justice to its story of world-at-stake political machinations. You can’t depict the threat of nuclear war through chase scenes.

Still, when that bomb goes off, the movie becomes an effective, efficient thriller with the capacity to take your breath away. If only the rest of it took a cue from something like Rod Lurie’s The Contender which, despite its single-mindedness, lent sensationalistic significance to the faux-Clinton scandal storyline.

-- Eugene Novikov

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