In 1973, as Egyptian and Syrian forces threaten to annihilate Israel, a lone fighter-bomber carrying a single nuclear bomb is launched by the beleaguered Jewish state, just in case defeat looms too near. But, an anti-aircraft rocket finds the solitary plane and downs it with its lethal load intact. Now, decades later, the bomb is discovered and an unscrupulous plot is unleashed by powerful, violent men in the Tom Clancy, post-Cold War thriller, "The Sum of All Fears."
Updating Clancy's 1991 novel to a contemporary, new millennium setting and making Jack Ryan a 28-year old novice analyst at the CIA reps a reinvention of the character. Jack, as portrayed by Affleck, is a naïve player in the game of nuclear terrorism and not the near-super human action figure that the character became in, for instance, "Patriot Games" with Harrison Ford. Now, Ryan is merely a cog in the machine of democracy and has an intelligence and talent that is noticed by his soon-to-be mentor, CIA Director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman), who takes the young man under his wing.
Events in Russia deteriorate as the civil war in Chechnya expands with the use of chemical weapons. Then, the Russian premier dies and a new, unknown regime, led by President Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds), appears to have hostile intentions toward the US. Meanwhile, three top Russian nuclear scientists mysteriously disappear and seeds of doubt of the former Soviets' intent are planted at the highest level of the United States government - President Robert Fowler (James Cromwell). Since little is known about Nemerov, the commander-in-chief seeks the help of the CIA, under Director Cabot, who, in turn, drafts inexperienced analyst Jack Ryan. Ryan, it seems, had previously written a detailed analysis on the new Russian president and is brought in as the agency "expert."
This begins a race against time as the Americans try to uncover the plot to explode a nuclear device within the borders of the US. Jack, trusting the word of the Russian leader, is one of the cooler heads in the game and strives to keep the devastating terrorist act from expanding into all-out war.
Veteran scripters Paul Attanasio ("Quiz Show") and Daniel Pyne ("Any Given Sunday") do a fine job of converting Tom Clancy's near-prophetic story to the screen. They capture the essence of the involvement by all the characters in the story that brings out a truly ensemble telling of what, not too long ago, were inconceivable events. Helmer Phil Alden Robinson commands his truly first-rate cast in building an exciting, believable story with characters you actually care about.
The cast consists of a bevy of experienced, talented character actors who are convincing in their various personas. Ben Affleck is having, I hope, a career comeback on the heals of his nicely rendered performance in "Changing Lanes." He plays Jack Ryan exactly as I picture the unwitting novice in the world of international intrigue and nuclear brinksmanship. The great Morgan Freeman, thankfully without Ashley Judd here, provides the dignity and coolness befitting the head of the CIA, but injects a subtle humor into the character that makes him all the more appealing as a person - you would hope that the powerful office would be held by such an intelligent, thoughtful person.
James Cromwell is relaxed and confident in the role of President Fowler. He is pissed that the Russians would try to kill him and is willing to hit back, hard. But he is also an experienced politician and sees that a pissing contest between nuclear powers is a lose-lose situation. Liev Schreiber, an entirely under-rated American actor, gives depth to his character, John Clark, a highly experienced CIA field operative who is forced to go back into the cold to help Jack get to the bottom of the terrorist plot. Alan Bates, as power broker Richard Dressler, is a wolf in lambs clothing as the puppet master manipulating worldwide events for his own gain. The rest of the many other character actors give fine perfs, including Bridget Moynahan as Dr. Cathy Muller, Jack's main squeeze. The actress has a small role but injects it with three dimensions that show her as Jack's equal in every way.
The special effects machine, led by Glenn Neufeld, utilizes its tools to create convincing visual images without having a hey-look-at-the-slick-stuff-we're-doing feel. Things like the terrorist attack are handled economically without sacrificing the visual and emotional impact of an event that lasts for seconds but impacts thousands forever. Visually, "The Sum of All Fears" is sometimes stunning with its panoramic action sequences and fast-paced editing. There are several renditions of the sleek, identical trio of vehicles (you've seen this all before in flicks like "Twister") blasting across a stark landscape, but it is shot so well by John Lindley, it almost looks fresh. The rest of the techs are equally slick like the "satellite" photos of each of the cities the intrigue spreads to.
The obvious cooperation by the American military and intelligence communities is apparent throughout the film. Real footage of B2 bombers, F-16s and U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters gives the film the necessary verisimilitude to make it all the more convincing. "The Sum of All Fears" is an intelligent, adult thriller that reps a very good alternative to the blockbuster, fantasy flicks out there. I give it a B+.
A South African arms dealer (Colm Feore, "Final Jeopardy") procures an Israeli nuke at the behest of industrialist Dressler (Alan Bates, "The Mothman Prophecies"), a Nazi ideologist who believes Hitler was stupid in trying to defeat Russia and the U.S. when he could get them to destroy each other instead. When the bomb detonates during a Baltimore football game, U.S. President Fowler (James Cromwell, "Babe") barely makes it out alive, thanks to the advance warning of CIA neophyte Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck, "Changing Lanes"). Now it's up to Ryan to prevent nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia in the fourth Tom Clancy adaptation, "The Sum of All Fears."
Novelist Tom Clancy gave his seal of approval to Ben Affleck as the new, younger Jack Ryan and it's not just because he executive produced this film. Affleck, following in the footsteps of prior Ryans William Baldwin and Harrison Ford, is on a winning streak with this "Changing Lanes" successor. Another fine surprise comes with the direction of Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams"), proving himself in a new genre with this, the best Clancy screen adaptation to date.
Affleck has a large, seasoned ensemble to work with and everyone clicks. Ryan's introduced as a greenhorn whose paper on politician Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds, "Persuasion") brings him to prominence with CIA director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) when his subject rather suddenly becomes the Russian President. While Cabot's equally amused and annoyed as Ryan acts like a puppy whose feet are too big, Ryan's strongly held views on Nemerov continually fly in the face of the man's actions. Yet Ryan makes an all important impression on Nemerov when he accompanies Cabot on an arms inspection. Ryan also notices that three prominent Russian nuclear scientists are not on site, but Nemerov's advisor Grushkov (Michael Byrne, "Apt Pupil") provides unconvincing alibis.
Ryan's thrown into the field, protesting all the way, with experienced agent Clark (Liev Schreiber, "Kate and Leopold"). The two discover the scientists' secret location, but too late as the men have been murdered. Ryan pieces the puzzle together just as the bomb goes into play.
This "Fail Safe"-like story hits uncomfortably close to home post 9/11, but to the filmmakers and actors credit, "The Sum of All Fears," while never treating its subject lightly, occasionally siphons off tension with character driven humor. The adaptation by Paul Attanasio ("Quiz Show") and Daniel Pyne ("Any Given Sunday") accounts for Affleck's youth by modernizing events. A subplot traces his courtship of future wife Dr. Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynahan, "Serendipity").
Affleck is nicely paired with Freeman. The elder actor lets his impish nature poke through as he tweaks his protege about his new girlfriend. Freeman's made some poor role choices of late, making this one an affirmation of the man's talent. Affleck's all shaggy charm, his determined nature free of arrogance. Liev Schreiber is a great addition, his Clark bemusedly getting the nastier CIA jobs done. The presidential team of Cromwell's Chief Executive, Ron Rifkin's ("Boiler Room") Secretary of State, Philip Baker Hall's ("The Contender") Defense Secretary and Bruce McGill's ("The Legend of Bagger Vance") National Security Advisor are allowed a fun fakeout in the film's initial scene, only to reprise it in horror aboard an Air Force One buffeted by turbulence. They're well matched by the more one-manned focus in Russia. Ciaran Hinds is convincing as both a Russian and a man who must give the appearance of control when he doesn't know who is pulling the strings. Byrne's shadowy advisor keeps you guessing until the last.
Visual Effects Supervisor Glenn Neufeld ("Bless the Child") excels with scenes of a nuclear blast and its effects which are all the more powerful by the restraint in which they're captured by Director of Photography John Lindley ("Field of Dreams"). The elements are expertly put together by Clancy regular Neil Travis ("Clear and Present Danger," "Patriot Games"), who wraps up loose ends with a tip of the hat to "The Godfather's" baptismal scene.
"The Sum of All Fears" is a crack espionage thriller writ on a grand scale.
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