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Retro Review: The Sum of All Fears

Wednesday, October 03, 2012
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Oui, il en manque une...en effet, le monde, c'est fin, c'est...c'est...c'est...

La Somme De Toutes Les Peurs!
Ben Affleck. You'll love him or hate him.

I thought he was great in Good Will Hunting, as bad as the rest of Pearl Harbor and forgettable in most everything else.

Gone Baby Gone was good, but elder Affleck was behind the camera on that one. It's like when he actually has to pretend for us the thespian takes a back seat (if there is one in him) and the GQ coverboy steps up to say hi and can I borrow a cup of sugar 'cause ain't I cute enough?

That was quite the tangent.

The Sum of All Fears is adapted from the 1991 thriller of the same name by Tom Clancy. Having never read this particular tome, I can't vouch for its faithfulness. I can however, say that all Tom Clancy books are the same.

The films translated from Clancy books are a different beast. I thought Hunt For Red October was okay and loved both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.

Mostly I really liked Harrison Ford and the way he reinvented himself in the early 90's as the forty-something professional with family on his mind, who is unwittingly targeted.

Ford brought seriousness and credibility to the role of John Patrick Ryan with a no-frills performance that was both believable and necessary. Because the rest of Clancy's books focus on situations of international conspiracy and intrigue which are so fictional you need someone to stop you from suspending belief entirely.

Give it to me in a nutshell

The Sum of All Fears revolves around Jack Ryan (Affleck) whose rapid ascension from mailboy, to senior aide to the Director of Central Intelligence (Morgan Freeman) is owed less to his personality and more to these three facts:

  • A rich Austrian Neo-Nazi named Dressler wants some sort of German hegemony;
  • He wants to create war between the USA and Russia to achieve this; and
  • He's found an arms dealer (Colm Feore) with a nuclear weapon.

You probably know much of the rest: new Russian Present Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds) ends up going mano-y-mano with US President Fowler after said nuclear weapon is refitted by three disaffected Russian scientists and rips apart a Baltimore football stadium. Cue explosions, fighter jets, snapcounts, red phones to the Kremlin and all sorts of associated politico-military ephemera.

Let me get something out of the way: this movie is anachronistic beyond all get-out.

'So, Morg...in about five years, I'm making Gone Baby Gone. Whatcha think, mmm?'
It was released - and substantively set in - 2002 at the beginning of the War on Terror, but the book was written when bricks from the Berlin Wall were still being gleefully hurled to the ground by grateful Berliners.

Which is to say, that in the chaos following the revolution and de-Sovietisation, a plot to secure nuclear war between Russia and the USA may have been credible in the world of political fiction.

But it became exponentially less likely as the years wore on and in 2002 was a dim afterthought from a different age, especially as the US was everyone's sympathetic figure after 9/11.

So what you have with The Sum of All Fears is a movie based on an axis of 1991 suspicions, but living in the age of Palm Pilots. I couldn't get past the cognitive dissonance being thrust upon me. But I know I think too much.

So, who did what?

Ben Affleck is not good in this. He's a biteless, presumptuous, anaemic schoolboy whom nothing ever rattles, showing little emotional range and less depth than a pancake. He looks so thoroughly bored in this that I am tempted to believe that he has a lot more in him as an actor and is stunted by the tripe being served up:

"...And Jack...we never had this conversation."

"What conversation."

Nonetheless, Harrison Ford brought a maturity and polished earthiness that Affleck lacks. Maybe it was just the way the character was written: where it seemed that Ford's Ryan would think the problem through to its conclusion and then go after the baddies, Affleck simply runs between calamities, recklessly throwing himself into the fray with the dwarved intellect of a nine year old.

The gravity in this image is betrayed by the fact that the National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defense are both asleep.
He's a coverboy in this, not a ten page article.

Freeman is good; Freeman's always good. As is James Cromwell, as President Fowler. Ciarán Hinds couldn't master a Russian accent if Gorbachev came along and stood behind him as his own personal puppet master, but he's still sufficiently dubious as the President about whose intentions nothing is known.

Some of the lesser characters were given to men of maturity and ability: Bruce McGill, Phillip Baker Hall, Ron Rifkin. Michael Byrne has accent issues too and is not quite threatening enough to be a henchman. He's too much the kindly uncle.

Liev Schrieber plays John Clark, the lynchpin of Clancy's Ryan-related agency sub-plots. Always thought Schrieber was pretty cool. He's underutilised. Bridget Moynahan is nails on a chalkboard. I don't want to talk about Bridget Moynahan.

It was no Pearl Harbor...that's a good thing

It's a Saturday night movie, and no doubt. The Sum of All Fears will not ever, ever, EVER make you think. Alright, it's not supposed to. But you're going to have to let go of a fair amount of belief, because this thing works as a vehicle for escapism.

It's mainly the 1991/2002 thing which overshadows the whole deal for me. The world had moved past the Cold War and this movie actually could have been made to fit a mould generated by the War on Terror. Maybe none of us were ready for that then, though.

Either way it's an odd fit. But there are explosions and the suspense, if not enough to make you wish for Lassie, is present as Ryan works to avert catastrophe.

Grab some popcorn and kick back. But if you fall asleep, I won't blame you. Just make sure it's after the aircraft carrier scene.
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