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[whitespace] Morgan Freeman and Ben Affleck
Fear Mongers: Morgan Freeman (left) mentors Ben Affleck's Jack Ryan in 'The Sum of All Fears.'

Zero-Sum Spy Game

Baltimore goes boom in film version of Tom Clancy's right-wing thriller 'The Sum of All Fears'

By Richard von Busack

IT'S NOT easy to retrofit an expensive Tom Clancy property, especially when the great man himself is looking over your shoulder as executive producer. So one makes allowances for the scattered quality of director Phil Alden Robinson's thriller The Sum of All Fears.

In this heavily rewritten version of the bestseller, a conspiracy to hatch the next world war is halted by Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck). Despite his former days as Harrison Ford (in Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games), Ryan is today just a minor clerk without wife or children. He also has a casual girlfriend (Bridget Moynahan) to whom he won't commit.

The film includes chunks of the original novel's berserk mix of East German scientists, weakling American politicians and Saudi extremists. Revised by several screenwriters--one of whom is Akiva Goldsman, of A Beautiful Mind, a name that's a danger sign on any movie poster--our story puts an atom bomb in the hands of a Commu-Nazi conspiracy.

The trouble begins when a couple of Arab peasants stub their toes on a derelict nuke, misplaced by the Israeli Army. These simple, backward folk, thinking that it's a jardiniere or something, peddle the weapon to proper villains from the West who'll know what to do with it.

The Blofeld here is an America-hating mastermind, a Vienna millionaire (Alan Bates, no relief) who, to tip us off, displays a swastika engraved on the inside of his watch. (One of his sample rants: "They called Hitler crazy. He wasn't crazy.") Russian renegades and American militias lend their talents to help this scheme.

I can't give the film the dignity it seeks, or rather, borrows from Morgan Freeman, who plays President James Cromwell's main adviser. Freeman is serious and solid, and he can deliver this kind of performance in his sleep--as he may have here.

Like Spy Game, The Sum of All Fears is loaded with hushed staff meetings in bunkers and plate-glass chambers, clerks peering at computer screens, urgent emails and teleconferences. These "realistic" spy films are far too much like the job you left to go see them.

To make matters worse, we're tantalized with a few scenes of a field agent played by Liev Schreiber whose career is far more Bondian than anything Affleck's Ryan gets up to. We don't follow him--that would be too escapist, God forbid.

The Sum of All Fears prides itself on its realism. We in the press received a "Fact Sheet" attesting to 10 points that prove that the events in the movie can actually happen. Most of these points have to do with the plausibility that terrorists can get an atomic weapon and detonate it. One is the mere note that Affleck actually got to press the flesh at CIA headquarters. Another point is that the Department of Defense rented out a lot of its spare hardware to flash in the movie. (Has anyone optioned Jane's Fighting Ships for the screen, by the way?)

The Sum of All Fears does go a step farther than the average spy film. The audience has been teased endlessly by the nuclear warhead that almost goes off in the Bond films. Here, the bluff is called, as you can see from the atomic wind in the previews. Watching the detonation, you get a lesson in why Bond always stopped the bomb in time. Folks, the explosion of a nuclear bomb can really put a pall over an adventure.

If The Sum of All Fears has any particular timeliness--aside from its marketers' tasteless insistence that Sept. 11 gives the movie more relevance--it's that the film complements the Bush administration's consensus that such a bombing is inevitable and we might as well get used to it.

The film, using a holocaust for entertainment, claims that the atom bombing of Baltimore wouldn't be really that big a deal. We see some burnt cars and an overburdened emergency room, as Jack Ryan tries to get to a telephone to forestall World War III. I'm not giving away the ending to say that there's no too-permanent damage; we overhear as an aside that the fallout blows out to sea (that's a relief!).

We even end on a solemn but upbeat note. It is a scenario that was played in Dr. Strangelove for horror. Remember George C. Scott's line, "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed, Mr. President"? And now, the lapse of public memory about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is supposed to make it easy for us to accept the idea of a regional nuking as entertainment. The Sum of All Fears, which begins dull, ends lunatic; this film, which flaunts its realism, is crazier than the craziest James Bond movie.

The Sum of All Fears (PG-13; 127 min.), directed by Phil Alden Robinson, written by Paul Attanasio and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Tom Clancy, photographed by John Lindley and starring Ben Affleck and Morgan Freeman, opens Friday valleywide.

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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