In 'Sum,' Too Many Parts That Don't Add Up
Friday, May 31, 2002
For all of you who have been waiting with bated breath for "The Sum of All Fears," rest assured: The world now has a demographically correct Jack Ryan. Harrison Ford? Banished forever. Alec Baldwin? Who he? With Ben Affleck, the franchise is now in the hands of a young, hunky matinee star who spends as much time talking about his girlfriend as he does reciting New Agey pieties about contemporary geopolitics. This, the studio suits hope, will bring in that elusive serial filmgoer known as the American Teenage Girl. But what about the rest of us?
Whether "The Sum of All Fears" will work for you depends on the degree to which you can tolerate the cliches, cheats and inconsistencies that riddle the filmic equivalent of a Beach Book. The movie, based on the Tom Clancy bestseller of the same name, has been given a stylish look by director Phil Alden Robinson, and there's no doubt that its theme of nuclear brinkmanship has an up-to-the-minute resonance. Affleck, too, proves to be an appealing iteration of Ryan, if not a scintillating action hero.
But if the movie succeeds on these counts it also has something to disappoint nearly every constituency to which it appeals: Action fans won't find much to get their ya-yas out in a film that's more about phones and computers than about blowing stuff up, hard-core Clancy fans will find its watered-down politics hard to take, techno-mavens will find its details wanting, and garden-variety moviegoers will find it confoundingly uneven. Even those teenage girls will ho-hum their way through the talky intricacies of its first hour.
Although Jack Ryan is deputy director of the CIA in Clancy's 1991 book, in this movie set in some indeterminate present he's back to being a newbie CIA analyst whose specialty is Russian political history. When an unknown quantity named Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds) unexpectedly becomes president of that country, CIA chief William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) brings Jack along when he advises the U.S. president (James Cromwell). Although Jack, who wrote a paper about Nemerov, believes him to be a man of peace, the president's advisers decide that he's not to be trusted; accordingly, when it's discovered that a Russian nuclear warhead has gone missing and, eventually, that said warhead is making its way toward the United States Ryan must single-handedly avert World War III by convincing his superiors that he's looked into Nemerov's eyes and seen his soul, and he's not the bad guy.
The bad guy, or guys, in Clancy's book were Arab terrorists. But in a world where the pool of politically acceptable villains has been narrowed to puppy killers, abusive husbands and Nazis, the terrorists have been morphed into a group of venal fascists (led by a scenery-chewing Alan Bates). This little change might have helped the filmmakers avert a public-relations World War III, but it stands as an example of how "The Sum of All Fears" lacks the courage of even the most problematic of Clancy's convictions. Straining to present Jack Ryan as a Third Way kinda guy with more enlightened politics than the hawkish elders who are portrayed as hopelessly mired in old Cold War ways of thinking the movie continually pulls its punches, resulting in a film of more ambition than impact. (One area in which the movie fairly represents the Clancy worldview is in its fetish for "gray ops," those clandestine, extralegal intelligence activities that invariably prove more effective in restoring world order than boring old statecraft.)
But what "The Sum of All Fears" gets right, it gets really right: Freeman and Affleck create a believable chemistry ("What is this, 'The Paper Chase'?" Freeman cracks when he first sees the rumpled Ryan). There's a terrific scene early in the film when, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, a cataclysmic world event is announced by the increasing tintinnabulation of erupting cell phones. And, speaking of the courage of convictions, the filmmakers take the bold step of actually detonating a nuclear bomb (at a "Black Sunday"-esque Super Bowl game being played in Baltimore), making this that rare cinematic moment when the dingus actually does what it's been threatening to do. Robinson handles the explosion and its aftermath with admirable restraint, according the event the solemnity it's due and bleaching out the scenes to give them a ghostly, haunting pallor.
But then there are the little things: Ryan's romantic subplot (starring the lovely Bridget Moynahan) is a silly distraction from the business at hand, and the idea that former CIA operative John Clark (Liev Schreiber) would take a soft-handed analyst along as his only support on a difficult mission is risible. But most of the movie's stretchers occur just before and just after the bomb goes off: First, Cabot misses Ryan's desperate warnings because he can't be bothered to use Caller ID and then, once Ryan flies into action to block a U.S. retaliation, things really get out of hand, with Jack commandeering cars to zip through burning Baltimore streets and striding into super-secure command facilities to use their computers (without a password, even!).
Tiny details, really, but attention to detail is supposed to be Clancy's specialty (it's certainly not stylish writing). And it's the missed details that fatally compromise a movie that depends on credibility for its effectiveness, as opposed to how many punches fly, guns fire or fireballs explode. Especially considering the events of the past year, "The Sum of All Fears" should carry all the urgency of a film that captures, magnifies and elaborates on the anxieties of its time. Luckily, that movie has already been made: It's called "Dr. Strangelove," and it's available at a video store near you.