The Sum of All Fears is a strange movie -- a curious combination of timeliness and irrelevance. Much has been made of Sum author and executive producer Tom Clancy's prescience in foreshadowing terrorist attacks on America: His 1994 book The Debt of Honor featured an enraged pilot crashing a plane into the Capitol. As a result, even CIA Director R. James Woolsey has been calling Clancy Miss Cleo in the wake of 9-11. But if Clancy is so all-seeing, then why do I feel like this movie is old news?
Part of it is the casting of the bad guys, it seems. For our villains, we have the all-purpose, universally hated neo-Nazis, the kind of guys who like to flap around to Italian opera. (Note to all movie score folks: Italian opera is not a good fit for these particular baddies. Go with Richard Wagner, or, even better, Richard Strauss.)
Another problem is timing. Conceived, cast, and shot before 9-11, the movie producers had no idea that their adaptation of Clancy's 1991 book would undergo such rigorous scrutiny. The film outlines a fanatical terrorist plot to launch attacks on the United States and Russia, thereby instigating a nuclear war between the two (so Cold War). Bumbling around to save us from this fate is our hero from other Clancy novels, Jack Ryan, played this time around by Ben Affleck as a neophyte CIA analyst.
Hoary political-intrigue movie conventions -- frantic conversations in corridors, globe-trotting storylines, two warring presidents acting on a lethal melange of testosterone overload and no intelligence (of any kind) -- don't really improve Sum's freshness. In addition, the movie is plagued by at least two major plot potholes that threatened to sink it entirely. Namely:
1) What do neo-Nazi fascists have to gain from instigating a nuclear apocalypse? Who wants to reign over a blighted planet with no living people on it?
2) What kind of weird time warp have we entered into, that Jack Ryan (strappingly middle-aged in The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger) is a mere stripling CIA analyst in the year 2002?
In fact, the greenhorn aspect of Ryan's character plays a major role here. A lowly analyst who ponders the Russian government's daily soap opera of weight gain and who's banging whom, Ryan is catapulted into the limelight by the ascendancy of a new Russian president, one on whom he happens to be an expert. When terrorist horrors ensue, only Ryan knows that the Russians aren't behind it. But no one listens to the young upstart. The featherbrained U.S. President and brooding new Russian head of state start acting like two cross-eyed water buffalo locking horns -- snuffling, snorting, and spewing lines about not looking weak or vulnerable. And then the movie goes wheezing off on hackneyed Cold War hysteria faster than you can say Red October.
Up to this point, the film had had some snap. We traced the skeins of a terrorist plot, watched Ben Affleck get humiliated, and saw Morgan Freeman stretch beyond his usual wise elder role to imbue the character of CIA Director William Cabot with some grown-up playfulness. But when the Russia-U.S. nuclear escalation bit comes into play, the movie goes on autopilot. If you want to believe that Clancy is a for-real Nostradamus, you might say he was making a statement about how Cold War thinking could prevent state leaders from seeing the real threat of decentralized terrorism. But more likely, he just wanted to shake up that tried-and-true Clancy formula: us vs. the Commies.
Still, for some post-9/11 viewers, The Sum of All Fears will provide the bogeyman and the hero all in one -- terrorism and one man smart enough to stop the world from going poof. If something could hold true about Clancy's vision, I'd like it to be just that, the one-man-staves-off-apocalypse aspect of the movie. We'd all like to believe that a stubborn someone can score an intelligence coup, can be fiercely curious and enterprising enough to push his or her theory past the scornful powers-that-be. Even if it is Affleck, his giant tiki-head quivering with the effort to emote. Despite the movie's nonsensical plot and tiresome Cold War rehashing, I'm sort of glad I watched it. In light of the recent questions about intelligence-gathering, Jack Ryan seems less like a movie cliche and more like a good idea.