Paramount // 2002 // 123 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 11th, 2008
27,000 Nuclear Weapons. One is missing.
"The bomb is in play."
In 1973, a nuclear weapon went missing. Nearly 30 years later, it has been found by some grave-diggers in the desert, and it has been sold to a group of power-hungry neo-Nazis.
The President of Russia has just died. A new President (Ciaran Hinds, Munich) has been put into place and begins his new term by bombing Chechnya. This makes the United States unhappy and nervous.
A sudden devastating attack is launched on the United States, and the American President (James Cromwell, Babe) immediately suspects that the Russians are behind it. He and his advisors are forced to come up with an appropriate response in a very short amount of time, but they cannot strike back at Russia unless they can confirm that the Russians are responsible.
Young historian Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck, Chasing Amy) is convinced that the Russians are not responsible and is determined to get this message to the president before nuclear war breaks out between two world superpowers.
Many have been baffled and confused by the question of where The Sum of All Fears stands in the series of Jack Ryan films. The film stars Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan and Bridget Moynahan as Cathy, Ryan's future wife. It is obviously supposed to take place before all the other films, right? After all, Ryan was a married man in all of those films. Oh, but wait...this film is set in the 21st Century, at least a decade after all of the previous films. Is it a reboot, a relaunch, a prequel, a sequel? My answer to this question: forget about the other movies as much as you can and just focus on The Sum of All Fears as a stand-alone film. It works best that way.
The Sum of All Fears brings the franchise back to its roots, creating a film that is somewhat similar in tone to The Hunt for Red October. This is not really an action movie, but a political drama that serves as a springboard for some engaging and intelligent discussion. That's all true on paper, anyway. In reality, The Sum of All Fears feels different than the any of the films, largely because it was released after the horrifying events of September 11th, 2001. We now live in a world where the events of a film like this don't seem as outlandish as they would have 10 years ago.
I will not describe when or where the attack on America takes place, but let it be said that it comes at a moment that is sudden and unexpected. The film really shines in the way that it portrays the character reactions to this situation. The highlights of The Sum of All Fears involve the president and his tight-knit group of advisors aboard Air Force One, circling the skies while frantically attempting to figure out a strategy. We've seen similar scenes in movies before, with military and political figures running around giving clipped statements and code words to each other. The tone is different here. Everyone is nervous, shaky, angry, and emotional. Serious conversations about strategy are unexpectedly punctuated with sudden outbursts of feeling. One of my favorite little moments in the film is between the president and an advisor played by Bruce McGill (Matchstick Men). In the scene, the President begins by screaming at the advisor and finishes by comforting him; it feels quite true and honest.
The film has assembled a really terrific cast of supporting players. Morgan Freeman is in top form as Bill Cabot, a top CIA guy who feels that Ryan is a man of great potential. Freeman brings a welcome dose of wit to the first half of the film, before things get appropriately grim in the second half. James Cromwell is nothing short of terrific in the role of the President, demonstrating once again that he is one of cinema's most under appreciated actors. Equally good is Liev Schrieber as the amoral John Clark, an important character in Clancy's world that has been reduced to a smaller supporting player in this film (Willem Dafoe played the same character in Clear and Present Danger). I've complained that Ciaran Hinds is an excellent actor who is shamefully underused in many of his films, but that is not the case here. That's plenty of good performances in one film, but consider that there are also solid smaller roles here for such fine actors as Alan Bates (Gosford Park), Philip Baker Hall (Secret Honor), Ron Rifkin (Alias), Bruce McGill, Michael Byrne (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and Colm Feore (The Exorcism of Emily Rose).
The hi-def transfer is solid, with deep blacks and only the faintest evidence of grain here and there. Sound is impressive, with Jerry Goldsmith's moving score being given a rich mix. This isn't really a noisy movie, but a few key sequences will shake your room a bit. The extras included are a mixed bag. Two featurettes (one on making the film, one on special effects) are dull, as is a commentary with the cinematographer and director Phil Alden Robinson. However, a second commentary is a nothing short of a knockout. Robinson is joined by author Tom Clancy, who proves to be a particularly tough critic. He begins the commentary by saying, "I'm Tom Clancy, the guy who wrote the book they ignored." It just gets harsher from there. Clancy is eager to point out every single instance in which Robinson made a technical mistake, which is often painfully funny. "Ha...those people would never say anything that pointless." "This scene is childish." "That thing you did there...that's total bulls -- t." One of my favorite exchanges:
Clancy: Is that supposed to be a bomb or a torpedo?
Robinson: It's a bomb.
Clancy: Huh. You've got all the dimensions completely wrong.
Robinson: Wait...actually, no, it's a torpedo.
Clancy: The dimensions are still way off.
Clancy begrudgingly acknowledges a few small moments that he thought were nice, but mostly is content to sit back and take huge swipes at Robinson's work. After a while, Robinson starts becoming so fearful of Clancy's criticisms that he becomes quick to try and point out any possible technical flaws in each scene before Clancy can beat him to it. However, you can also sense him getting genuinely pissed off as things proceed, which can be particularly heard in one moment:
Clancy: You know, the President in the book was based on Michael Dukakis. Left-wingers are actually more likely to turn to nuclear weapons as a last resort, because they tend to get themselves backed up against a wall and then have nothing left to do. Right-wingers tend to catch that sort of thing earlier. I'm not saying that for political reasons, I'm just saying that tends to be the case more often than not.
Robinson (in a cold and extremely harsh manner): Oh, I will be glad to debate that point with you at some other time...sir.
I don't know what Paramount was thinking when they decided to include this track, but I'm so grateful they did. It's been a long time since I've heard a commentary this savagely entertaining.
Much as I admire the vast majority of the cast in this film, I'm afraid that I must take exception to the casting of Ben Affleck in the role of Jack Ryan. Initially, the part was offered to Harrison Ford, who had played Ryan twice in the 1990s. Unfortunately, Ford turned down the role, and the part was re-written for a younger actor. Affleck simply can't fill Ford's shoes, or even Alec Baldwin's. He's wrong for this role, and doesn't project the quiet intelligence that made the character so compelling in the other three films. Bridget Moynahan is uninteresting in a poorly-written role as Cathy, Ryan's girlfriend (and future wife). Still, this isn't a huge problem, because The Sum of All Fears is more of an ensemble film than the Clancy films (Cromwell has as much screen time as Affleck).
Additionally, the film ends on a sour note. The first hour of the film is entertaining, the second hour is dark and intense. That's appropriate, but after the events at the midpoint it is a crime to go back to the tone of the first half. The ending makes that very mistake, providing a cutesy and sweet little romantic finish to a series of gut-wrenching events. Thankfully I'm talking about the coda, not the climax, but it's still a crappy way to end this thought-provoking movie.
Despite Tom Clancy's own brutal criticisms of the film's technical merits (I fear for the self-esteem of any director who tries to adapt his work), The Sum of All Fears is, for the most part, a classy and engaging drama that deals with serious elements in a mature manner. A strong cast, good story, respectable transfer, and terrific commentary track make this hi-def release worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary w/Phil Alden Robinson and Tom Clancy
* Commentary w/Phil Alden Robinson and John Lindley
* "The Making of the Sum of All Fears"
* "Creating Reality: The Visual Effects of The Sum of All Fears"