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Non-Review Review: The Sum of All Fears

The Sum of All Fears is a strange little beast. By changing the nature of the movie’s threat from Middle Eastern terrorists to a secret cult of Nazis, the film seems to want to avoid seeming “heavy” or “relevent.”However, any form of entertainment that depicts a nuclear attack on a US city on the same scale as that depicted here, seems to carry a lot of weight with it anyway. I think that’s really the core problem with an otherwise reasonable solid film, the fact that it has difficulty balancing what should be an uncomfortable viewing experience with an attempt not to upset anyone.

Ryan, Jack Ryan...

I’m a big fan of the Jack Ryan movies. I loved The Hunt for Red October, and I really enjoyed the two Harrison Ford films – Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. I really think the character fits a wonder niche in the market for what could probably be described as an American James Bond – a character tied up in the dangerous and exotic world of espionage and dirty dealings, but with more political concerns stemming from it. That said, I don’t think Ben Affleck has quite the charisma to pull off the part here, as an embryonic Jack Ryan.

I don’t mean it as an insult – I’m a bigger fan of Affleck than most, even before it became cool to like him – just an acknowledgment of the fact that Affleck doesn’t have the raw appeal of Harrison Ford, or even Alec Baldwin. That’s not a black mark against the actor, as there’s a reason Ford is a beloved institution, but just a fact. Affleck doesn’t have the screen presence to anchor a thriller like this in his character, which creates all sorts of problems later on when the plot diverges down two separate threads – Affleck is asked to carry one, and he just can’t hold it as well as the other thread evolving inside Air Force One.

Fools Russian in...

There’s also the rather awkward attempt to give the movie politically correct villains in a bunch of European Nazis. The probelm is that this feels more than a little forced, and disrupts the flow of the film. After all, the movie opens with a downed nuclear missile from an Israeli fighter jet – setting the tone and the locale pretty quickly. While there’s a logical progression that sees the weapon come into the hands of the central European power brokers, it feels strange to draw Israel into a story that is essentially focused on America, Europe and Russia. Similarly, the use of Chechnya as a political football works within the context of a simmering political conflict between the two powers works within the script, but it would have dovetailed nicely into the threat of Islamic fundamentalists. I can understand the decision to veer away from a hot-button issue, but the presence of the alternative villains also creates a fairly huge thematic inconsistency in the film itself.

The movie rather brilliantly explores a post-Cold-War world, where the ideological conflict between America and Russia has evaporated. It’s a strange time of progression and uncertainty. The rules of changed, and new threats lie waiting in the fold. “You’re sure it’s the Russians?” the President asks, the first line of the film – and it betrays a sort of uncertainty about who the bad guys are in this uncertain geo-political climate. Discussing the War Games organised, advisor William Cabot suggests, “We also need somebody else to face off against other than the Russians.”

The nuclear codes are president and accounted for...

So the movie seems to be about the geo-political layout of a world after fall of communism, where nobody knows what the next threat will be. So it feels more than a little trite to suggest progression and evolution by introducing… Nazis. A global threat from Nazi ideology is not something brave and unpredictable. It’s a regression, a step backwards. It isn’t as if the world has changed at all, because it’s just the same old bad guys. Hell, they even sit around and have endless conversations that are completely pointless.

In the book, the terrorists were Islamic extremists. Despite what it may look like, the changes to the film were made long before the September 11th attacks, and I do find myself feeling a little uneasy about that. I am Irish. I liked Patriot Games, even though its Irish characters were a bunch of liars, sociopaths and terrorists. I didn’t feel offended or misrepresented – and, to be honest, I thought it was fair. Because there are people who are Irish who do those things, and to pretend otherwise is offensive and counter-productive. Islamic terrorist extremism is just as real as Irish terrorist republicanism, and just as lethal.

Giving some Free(man) advice...

I can understand the argument for excluding them from the film – it might have been disturbing or unsettling in what is otherwise intended as a charming little thriller. However, this argument is somewhat disarmed by the fact that the movie features a rather in-depth exploration of a nuclear attack against a major American city. Any chance of not making the viewer feel uncomfortable is gone out the window with that – it’s harrowing stuff, and quite rightly so. It feels uncomfortable to watch a nuclear explosion handled as if it is just “popcorn entertainment”, because the iconography carries such weight with it. A nuclear attack should be uncomfortable, and painting it as the act of a comfortably fictional bunch of Nazis undermines that and makes the whole film feel a little insecure.

As a sidenote, I can’t be the only person unhappy with how the movie deals with said Nazis. After tonnes of build-up, lot of exposition, a heap of screentime… the conspirators end up suffering what can only be described as “death by montage.” I understand the argument that are a plot device and not something that needsa great deal of resolution, but it still feels strange to give them so much screentime and then wrap it all up in such a haphazard fashion.

As the world burns...

That said, there are some good moments here. The political conflict between Russia and the united States is well-handled, helped along by superb performances from James Cromwell and Ciarán Hinds, the latter of whom seems to deliver his lines mostly in Russian. These sequences are so effective that the audience quickly tires of jumping back to Jack Ryan’s race against time. There are other great moments peppered throughout the film – like Colm Feore’s arms dealer watching The Antiques Roadshow while marking up the price on a nuclear bomb.

The cast is superb. In particular, Morgan Freeman continues to bring an air of class to films that arguably aren’t nearly as good as he is, delivering his lines with wonderful relish. “When I said I wanted your opinion,” he advises Ryan, “I didn’t mean you should actually speak.” There’s even a relatively small part for the always-good Liev Schreiber. In a tense stand-off with a bunch of Russians, he orders Ryan, “Shoot them, before they figure out what it is I’m saying.”

The Sum of All Fears is a strange beast. It seems to want to be a piece of light entertainment, but its contents preclude that possibility. So what we end up with is a film at war with itself, seemingly trapped between being a piece of popcorn cinema and something a bit more serious and philosophical. The balance doesn’t always work, and it’s a shame – I get the sense it could have made for a nice little political thriller.

2 Responses

  1. I’ve always viewed the nazis and the israeli jet as just contrivances to create a race against time, cold war-style standoff that would work in a modern setting. Having them be Islamic terrorists wouldn’t have changed the movie much, IMO, because they would both inhabit the role of “small group of extremists that cause a cold war crisis”. They were plot devices and nothing more. They could have been anarchists, communists, environmental extremists or anything else and it wouldn’t have been much different.

    That being said, I’ve always found The Sum of All Fears as entertaining, but light thriller. It doesn’t have a lot of meat to it, but is pretty fun to watch. It’s certainly not better than the Harrison Ford movies, but I don’t think it’s necesarily a LOT worse than the other films in the series.

    • It’s strange though, something about the way it handled the nuclear attack made it feel a bit… strange as popcorn entertainment. It’s weird, because 24 is one of the few cases where it has almost worked, and even then a nuclear attack on a civilian target usually seemed to knock the season out of whack.

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