“What’s a South African doing in the Ukraine with three Russian scientists and a crate from Israel?”
It’s not a joke. It’s the central question in “The Sum of All Fears,” the new movie based on Tom Clancy’s best-selling 1991 novel.
“The Sum of All Fears” is the latest adaptation to come from Clancy’s Jack Ryan series. Previous adaptations included “The Hunt for Red October,” “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” The first starred Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Ryan. The last two featured Harrison Ford.
Baldwin and now Affleck play Ryan better than Ford ever did. Why? Their youth makes them seem less sure of themselves and the outcome less certain.
The movie opens with a text crawl: Egypt and Syria attacked Israel in 1973. Israel scrambled an A-4 jet carrying one nuclear bomb. But the plane was shot down and the bomb was lost in the desert. Twenty-nine years later, it’s uncovered and events are set in motion.
President Fowler, played by an ever-credible James Cromwell, is in office. We meet him going through a “fire drill” of nuclear disaster scenarios. This cleverly executed scene sets the tone for “disaster images” (according to the Motion Picture Association of America rating) to come.
We also meet neo-fascist Richard Dressler, solidly established through a shot of the swastika engraved on his watch. He’s a man who, with his far-right-wing cronies, takes advantage of global communications to foster hatred. Furthermore, he and his kind know they can’t fight the Russians or Americans, so their strategy is to get these powers to fight each other. From amid the rubble, they hope to arise.
“The Sum of All Fears” is the kind of movie that uses satellite imaging photos to establish locations throughout the world. It works.
In this world, diplomats are funny. Situations are funny, and the people in them are always looking for an edge.
It’s also a world where a superior says “We never had this discussion” out of one corner of his mouth while giving covert orders through the other.
And it’s a world where Russians and Americans are back at it. In the wake of Sept. 11, a Cold War encore almost feels safe. But in this world, the Russians and Americans might blow each other up not because of hatred or competing worldviews, but because of … a misunderstanding.
So this world needs a Jack Ryan, someone who understands that communication savvy and cooler heads prevail.
The screenwriters, Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, offer plenty of humor in both situations and dialogue.
For example, when Ryan gets called away from his girlfriend abruptly, she mutters, “What kind of emergency does a historian have?” Later, when Ryan later tries to come clean and tell her that he’s on a plane to Russia for a nuclear arms inspection, she calls that “excuse” lame and hangs up.
But for all the good writing, a central narrative problem remains. It concerns the detonation of a nuclear device, the portrayal of which is initially absolutely jarring. However, the effects of this disaster seem awfully tangential and superficial.
Note that the World Entertainment News Network reported last Sept. 14 and again on Oct. 9 that this movie’s release would be delayed or cancelled altogether, since the terrorist attack in the movie would no longer work on American audiences.
Well, terrorism onscreen may still work on American audiences. And it may not. It may be that Americans can still deal with terrorism onscreen, but treating it in pre-Sept. 11 ways won’t wash in a post-Sept. 11 world.
That complaint aside, “The Sum of All Fears” offers quality filmmaking and some of the magic from the first Clancy adaptation, “The Hunt for Red October.”
Similarities abound between “October” and “Fears”: the unsteadiness of Ryan’s character, his reliance on a mentor, his belief that the Russians aren’t all bad, his ability to interpret situations differently from the powers that be, and even his excuses for inaction, summed up in phrases like “I’m an analyst” and “I just write reports.”
Furthermore, the film’s excellent cast includes not only Affleck, Cromwell and Morgan Freeman, but also Liev Schreiber, Philip Baker Hall, Josef Sommer and Michael Byrne, a wonderful actor with a dimensional part.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
Rating: PG-13 for violence, disaster images and brief strong language
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Cast: Ben Affleck: Jack Ryan; Morgan Freeman: Bill Cabot; James Cromwell: President Fowler; Live Schreiber: John Clark; Alan Bates: Richard Dressler; Philip Baker Hall: Defense Secretary Becker.