The Sum of All Fears
2 stars

by Stephen Notley

Like everything else, the task of conjuring up scary political thrillers has been made a lot trickier by the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. No movie has yet had the guts to admit what happened, so how do you handle a movie like The Sum of All Fears, an 80s-style story of nuclear brinkmanship? 

There was reason to believe The Sum of All Fears could be a good, even awesome movie. That reason was Phil Alden Robinson, who made Field of Dreams and the overlooked little comedy thriller Sneakers. Both those films had that sense, from the get-go, that the guy making the movie really knew what he was doing. The dialogue was clever, the scenes got you interested right away, and everything built up to cool, memorable sequences. 

And if any movie cried out for a calm, competent hand at the director's tiller, it's The Sum of All Fears, contorting itself left and right to find a way to be interesting to today's audience, who have seen worse come to life in front of their eyes. So, for example, it breaks from the other Jack Ryan movies in making 2002 Jack Ryan a fresh rookie, 20 years younger than, say, Harrison Ford in A Clear and Present Danger. And it breaks from the book in dropping the dime, not on "Arabic terrorists", but on a frankly ridiculous conglomeration of unreconstructed Nazis, Aryan Nations guys and EU supremacists.

It could have worked. A political thriller doesn't have to be current or real -- you could do one about Napoleon or outer space and still have right-now relevance. But The Sum of All Fears, ultimately, frustratingly, just isn't scary. It fails to conjure the dread and horror that pumps the blood of the finest political thrillers. There's no vertiginous feeling, no sense of toppling over the edge into some real thing that actually affects your life, even if you are just watching a movie

The global political situation has been so scrambled since Clancy wrote the books, it's hardly even recognizable anymore. In fact, the old paradigm of Cold-War brinkmanship is almost comforting, considering what we're facing now. In the old days, if our leaders were all holed up in a bunker somewhere shitting their pants and holding trembling fingers over The Button, at least we knew there was another roomful of guys on the other side doing the same, shitting *their* pants, guys who just might be willing to cut a deal rather than blow up the Earth.

Now, our guys are still holed up in that room, but there is no other room of bad guys. There's just the random accumulated anger of millions of people who feel, with some reason, that they've been fucked over by bombs and guns made in America. Who can the President call on the big red telephone next to the big red button? Our enemy is mist, dust, or worse, our enemy is the possibility that we ourselves will stumble down the path to dark empire as we flail away at the phantom menaces around us.

But all that aside, Sum Fears just isn't that entertaining as a movie. Ben Affleck is great and charming in this as he is an all his films, but the story follows him only lightly, splitting its time between Affleck, James Cromwell as President Fowler, and Liev Schrieber as a shadowy spy-slash-assassin. Jack doesn't unwind the story for us, it unwinds itself, so without a real character arc it eventually ends up just as a series of specific political machinations that don't seem all that threatening.

As well, Sum Fears is shy about the big stuff. Not wanting to blast the audience with evocations of fresh WTC images, it backs off instead; the Baltimore Incident takes place virtually offscreen. There's nothing in this movie that even comes close to the "Too Many Secrets" scene in Robinson's own Sneakers. So if it's not thrilling politically, and not engaging narratively, well, then it's just not that good. Sadly.