Archive for Sunday, June 2, 2002

Terrorist tactics are explored in “The Sum of All Fears”

(PG-13) ***

June 2, 2002

If movies like "Collateral Damage" and "Big Trouble" were a victim of post-Sept. 11 timing, then "The Sum of All Fears" is a beneficiary of it.

It's not that the film offers escapist entertainment from the affairs of terrorists, large scale disasters or Middle East politics, but precisely because author Tom Clancy's tale is so eerily prescient in depicting current events. This is an action thriller that takes little effort to make a viewer suspend disbelief.

Ben Affleck steps into the franchise role of Jack Ryan, a fledgling CIA analyst whose expertise on a particular Russian diplomat named Nemerov (CiarHinds) turns into an asset when the man becomes head of the Soviet nation overnight.

Meanwhile, a neo-Nazi fringe group (changed from being Muslims in the novel) purchases a salvaged Israeli fission bomb. Through a series of maneuvers, they help escalate hostilities between the two superpowers to the breaking point, hoping to resurrect the Third Reich in the aftermath. Ryan doesn't believe that the new Russian leader is capable of such catastrophic destruction. By playing detective, the analyst begins to unravel the true enemy behind the nuclear plot.

"The Sum of All Fears" is really divided into two halves: pre and post attack. The first provides an introduction into the clandestine world of the CIA, and it's filled with Clancy's celebrated insider knowledge of the agency. From the gadgetry of field operatives to the mechanics of tactical strikes, the author always parades the scope of his wisdom perhaps this is why a book written more than 10 years ago has so many direct similarities to today's events.

The second (and more nail-biting) half is more of an archetypal disaster flick, as we follow Ryan's struggles to reunite with loved ones and transmit information to colleagues after a large terrorist tragedy at the Super Bowl in Baltimore. (Surprising that this pivotal incident isn't instead set at the World Series, considering Clancy co-owns the Baltimore Orioles.)

Director Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams") films each half of the picture differently to reflect the story's tone. This is well-illustrated by contrasting a scene that takes place in the "situation room" where the president and the staff take refuge in the event of a disaster. This locale is first explored during an introductory practice run. Here, the filmmaker shoots the sequence very traditionally, with multiple cameras and medium compositions. When the characters retreat to this place in a real emergency, everything is portrayed with hand-held shots, jerky movements and close-ups, thus reflecting the you-are-there panic of the circumstances.

"The Sum of All Fears" also represents something of a career split for Affleck, who has really stepped up his game in 2002.

Once the definition of "white bread," the star has turned into more of a "multigrain" performer. Already this year he's co-headlined the excellent, morally challenging "Changing Lanes" with Samuel L. Jackson. And now he steps into the pivotal role of Ryan, first popularized by Alec Baldwin then Harrison Ford in the three previous big-budget adaptations of Clancy's work.

Although he doesn't have the steely toughness of Ford or the suavity of Baldwin, the blandly handsome Affleck also is playing a bookworm shoved into becoming a man of action. (In this respect, the movie mirrors Robert Redford's "Three Days of the Condor" more than previous Clancy adaptations.) Affleck doesn't rattle the screen with charisma, but he at least appears believable and, most importantly, vulnerable. This isn't an individual who has much ability to take down the bad guys with his fists; he has to rely on his wits.

Affleck has the good fortune of sharing the screen with some of America's finest character actors. Morgan Freeman stars as CIA Director William Cabot, and he naturally conveys the sparkle-in-the-eye confidence that has become expected of the multiple Oscar nominee. Lanky veteran James Cromwell ("The Green Mile") is particularly plausible as the American president. His scenes balance effectively between a man of protocol and of emotion.

Sure, "The Sum of All Fears" has stretches when the plot is dubious. It's a big leap in logic even for Nazi extremists to trust they could benefit from nuclear devastation. Do they think all the remaining Asian or Muslim countries would suddenly embrace Euro-style fascism?

And for all its ties to reality, the film's narrative still unfolds like a James Bond flick albeit a more intellectualized one.

But like "Patriot Games" or "The Hunt for Red October," the movie confidently unites Clancy's techno intricacies with a big-name Hollywood production. "The Sum of All Fears" proves that the Jack Ryan franchise still has some legs. Most importantly, it also has a brain.

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