How ‘Sum of All Fears’ Got Caught in 9/11’s Cultural FalloutJuly 30, 2022
In Phil Alden Robinson’s “The Sum of All Fears” (2002), Ben Affleck’s Jack Ryan is at the CIA in Langley, analyzing footage at his desk job.
The actor sports what can be best described as his “Daredevil”-era hair. After assaying the job for 14 months, an old paper Ryan wrote is dug up by Morgan Freeman’s Cabot, a CIA operative who pulls Ryan in as an expert to assist the agency on a developing discovery.
It turns out there’s a nuclear weapon being moved across the globe, and Ryan aims to track it down before someone can put it to use.
Robinson’s film introduced a welcome new angle on Jack Ryan, as the character is now younger, inexperienced and naïve. The grown up and hardened qualities that Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford brought to the character had yet to materialize, though Ryan is always defined in these movies declaring, “I’m just an analyst” and suddenly finding himself in a scenario where he is an unwilling expert.
Clancy’s 1991 novel had Arab terrorists, whereas the film rewrites them as neo-Nazi fascists. One of the central villains is Anatoli Breshnev, an ex-KGB Putin equivalent, played by Michael Byrnes, who previously played one of the main Nazi villains in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989).
The villains have the greatest power in their political connections and the positioning of pieces on their rhetorical chess board. As Alan Bates’ heavy explains, “You don’t fight Russia and America … you get Russia and America to destroy each other.”
There’s lots of Situation Room scenes, with actors looking straight ahead, spouting piles of exposition. This cliché is perhaps the most unavoidable quality in a Clancy adaptation.
Affleck, whose prior film was the impressive “Changing Lanes,” was a great choice for the role and ably carries the film. Perhaps his one and done status as Ryan has made fans of this franchise overlook just how good he is here.
Freeman, as always, is great in mentor roles. The scene where Cabot instructs Ryan to come clean with his girlfriend and tell her over the phone what his job actually entails is well played and written.
The supporting cast includes Colm Feore, Ciaran Hinds, Bates, Bruce McGill (who has a great scene where he loses his cool with the Commander in Chief), James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber, Philip Baker Hall and Ron Rifkin.
This is an absurdly gifted cast.
The film was made before 9/11 – exactly what the pre-release strategy, and how it changed afterward, is something of a mystery. I recall the rumor that the film might have been shelved indefinitely after 9/11, though the director explained on the DVD commentary that the film was always scheduled to be a summer of ’02 release.
Moments of levity aside, this is a somber film, depicting the world on the brink of disaster. As adapted by screenwriter Paul Attanasio, the storytelling is good.
To put it mildly, the film seems as much a response to the horrors of 9/11 as much as it was a film that predicted how the world reacted to the horrors of 2001. A bird’s eye view shot of a cityscape is chilling, as it resembles the final moment of normalcy in Baltimore. It’s a dread-inducing, all too familiar image.
What transpires after that is a horrifying spectacle, shown without music on the soundtrack. CGI is used here to evoke horror, not popcorn movie thrills. What was filmed as an earth shaking “tremendous occurrence” in a Hollywood movie, intended to create dramatic weight, became a scene that was impossible to separate from 9/11 and the reality of a changed nation afterward.
It’s a lot of baggage for any movie and Robinson’s film, to its credit, doesn’t exploit its subject matter as much as indicate, all too correctly, the horrible possibilities of terrorism and how we respond to such scenarios.
Like “Collateral Damage,” “Bad Company” and “Big Trouble” (all scheduled for 2001 but postponed until 2002), “The Sum of All Fears” depicts modern-day terrorism in a manner that made its respective studios push back the release date.
“The Sum of All Fears” became the first post-9/11 summer movie, made before the tragedy but unintentionally coming across like a direct reaction to it. Was the film too much, let alone too soon, to merit escapism during a time of healing from a real-life terrorist attack?
While it became a blockbuster hit, critics and audiences were divided about this question. Looking at it today, the film is riveting from start to finish and works as queasy escapism as much as the adventures of Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, though those works don’t feel as close to 9/11 as this one does.
The very-Hollywood or, perhaps, extremely Clancy-ian portion of the film is in the third act, with Ryan the only man running around, trying to prevent World War III from occurring. The imagery has unavoidable reminders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ,but Ryan, Clancy’s all-American 007, is always on the move or frantically yelling into a phone as the only sane man in America. Its crowd pleasing but stretches credibility.
FAST FACT: “The Sum of All Fears” earned $118.9 million at the U.S. box office in 2002, plus $75 million more from international markets. The year’s top film? The original “Spider-Man” directed by Sam Raimi.
Two details that stayed with me after listening to the film’s telling DVD audio commentary from Robinson and Clancy: Affleck was Clancy’s favorite Ryan (!) and the author, sounding crusty and unhappy, gives the director the backhanded compliment at the very end, noting he didn’t entirely screw the film up.
The finale is akin to the baptism scene in “The Godfather.” The closing scenes intend to instill hope, with an unlikely encounter with Byrnes’ character resulting in a far-too-cutesy sendoff.
It’s an even more syrupy wrap up for a Clancy film than the what’s-the-baby’s-name cut off on “Patriot Games” (1992). They shouldn’t have forced a happy ending, as audiences were clearly willing to face the darkness as much as Ryan is.
“The Sum of All Fears” is harder to take than most Clancy thrillers, because of how plausible and similar to real life it was in 2002 and today. While an imperfect film, it works as intended and as an admirable and worthwhile reflection on how stopping a terrible enemy can be a collective effort to keep the unthinkable from ever happening again.
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