Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Phil Alden Robinson

Cast: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber, Ciarán Hinds, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Bates, Philip Baker Hall, Bruce McGill, Ron Rifkin

MPAA Rating:  (for violence, disaster images and brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:04

Release Date: 5/31/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The fiction of Tom Clancy is set in the modern world, but it only has the guise of reality. His world is not run by major political leaders and treaties but instead by CIA operatives and backdoor conversations, and all dealings are dictated and overrun by fear and paranoia. Today’s political climate has caused some circles to go so far as to call his writing prophetic. While this claim is a bit silly (he’s a novelist; coming up with the worst-case scenario is an integral part to his success), the new thriller The Sum of All Fears, based on Clancy’s novel of the same name, has a strangely important relevancy in commenting on the state of the world. Fear has been coined the tool of the enemy, but it is also the tool of the politician. It’s fear that controls the perception of the need for maintaining a strong military presence in the world—even if it means holding onto weapons of mass destruction. The Sum of All Fears begins as a political potboiler but is smart enough to find a place for an actual message in the midst of its intrigue.

The film centers on Clancy’s popular protagonist Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst who in previous films based on Clancy’s work has investigated a renegade Soviet submarine (The Hunt for Red October), protected his family from IRA members (Patriot Games), and helped bring an end to a Colombian drug cartel (Clear and Present Danger). This story focuses on a younger Ryan (now played by Ben Affleck) who is asked by Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman), an advisor to President Fowler (James Cromwell), to help analyze the new Russian president Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds). Despite heavy suspicion from many top political advisors, Ryan is convinced that Nemerov is on the level. However, when Nemerov takes responsibility for a chemical attack on Cechnya (the worst in history), fears of a determined military ruler seem to be confirmed. Nemerov had nothing to do with the attack, though, and he reasons that it’s "better to appear guilty than impotent." Meanwhile, a group of neo-Nazi terrorists have obtained a nuclear warhead, thought lost in a failed Israeli mission in 1973, and will use it to escalate the tension between the two superpowers into a full-out nuclear war.

The film plays as an investigation where the audience understands more details than the characters do, and we wait for them to catch up to us. The film keeps the repeated knowledge from becoming boring by giving us the feel of an insider’s view into the workings of the CIA and the closed doors of key political discussions. The investigation is divided in two. The first half deals with what they are looking for, while the second deals with who they are looking for. At around the halfway mark, catastrophe strikes, and the stakes are raised even higher. Where at one point it seemed as though time was ample, now there is not enough of it. The latter scenes combine a haunting look at the aftermath of the disaster, including one special effect shot immediately afterward that is frightening. The event itself comes so suddenly that even though we know it’s inevitable, it is still a shock. The other plot focus in the second half of the film concentrates on the military strategies of the two leaders. The film depicts modern warfare the way we know it to be—quick, merciless, and precise. As the CIA detective work starts coming together, the plot does begin to get bogged down in names and communication gaps, but it’s easily forgivable.

Apart from capturing the fear and paranoia inherent to the material, director Phil Alden Robinson has assembled a fine cast of big-name stars and lesser-known character actors. Affleck takes over the role previously played by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, and his interpretation of the character is better suited to the fact that this is a younger Ryan. He’s not as assured and often lets his voice be heard when it isn’t wanted. His performance works well, and he is a good choice if a series of movies about a younger Ryan were to form. Morgan Freeman is underused, but like all of his performances, he lends his indelible mark of dignity and intelligence to the film. Bridget Moynahan plays Ryan’s understated love interest who will eventually become his wife, and Liev Schreiber is very effective as a CIA ghost. James Cromwell plays the President with much charm and once he’s placed in a horrible situation finds himself in an internal crisis. The scenes between Cromwell and his staff (which includes Philip Baker Hall, Ron Rifkin, and Bruce McGill) are full of added tension as personal feelings dominate the choices that could bring chaos.

So is a doomsday scenario entertaining today? One of the key signs that our perspective has changed is that it isn’t. The Sum of All Fears would have been entertainment at some point, but now it actually has the appearance of being important. It is well-made, contains a good deal of tension, and ultimately leaves us thinking about the possibility of such an situation occurring. The single most important concept that I took from the film is the idea that we should never, ever be prepared for nuclear war, because the moment we are is the moment we’ll allow it to happen.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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