The Sum of All Fears

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The inescapable
tv ads for the new Jack Ryan adventure The Sum of All Fears give away
the film’s horrific centerpiece: an atom bomb explosion that levels the
Super Bowl in Baltimore, killing thousands. The use of that image in the ads
is wrong on a couple of different levels. That it’s a major plot giveaway
is a minor infraction; far more troubling is the suggestion that releasing company
Paramount, for all its lip service to post-9/11 anxiety, still thinks of mass
death as a sideshow attraction–a big tease for ticket buyers; the kind
of image that an action hack like Renny Harlin might call a "whammy."
A year ago, this kind of crassness might have been understandable, if not excusable.
Throughout the 90s, as the Soviet Union disintegrated and America enjoyed a
solid decade of relative wealth and safety, A-bomb imagery lost its horror and
became, in films like Aliens, True Lies and Broken Arrow,
a different kind of fireworks display–an exclamation-point ending for an
all-caps screenplay; something for hardbodied lovers to kiss against. But today,
with American newspapers full of stories about backpack nukes and dirty bombs,
this tactic seems surreally offensive. The bomb blast in the final seconds of
the Sum of All Fears ad suggests the entertainment industry is already
lapsing into old, bad habits–or that it never cared to unlearn those habits.

The movie isn’t
nearly as crass as its promotional campaign, but it’s still pretty crass.
Like the other Jack Ryan movies, it’s a bit smarter than your typical big-budget
action picture (and the cast full of fifty- and sixtysomething character actors
guarantees a veneer of maturity). But like every Ryan movie, it’s not satisfied
with its richly counterintuitive concept (James Bond, pencil-pusher), and feels
obligated to put Ryan in harm’s way, where he can duke it out with beefy
henchmen and outrun tidal waves of digital flame. The plot, loosely based on
the Tom Clancy bestseller, has CIA analyst Jack Ryan (played by Ben Affleck,
likably but without distinction) trying to stop the U.S. and Russia from blasting
each other to smithereens. That setup is as old as a Sean Connery-era James
Bond picture, but Clancy and the filmmakers throw in a post-Cold War twist:
both nations are manipulated into attacking each other by a string of terroristic
incidents, all of which were secretly directed by an international cabal of
neofascists bent on resurrecting Hitler’s legacy. (The chief baddie is
a right-wing German politician played by Alan Bates, who charges every scene
with chilling congeniality.) In the book, the villains were Arab terrorists;
the studio changed them to white European racists long before 9/11, to avoid
charges of racial stereotyping. A certain irony lingers over this very p.c.
decision, but the film’s bad guys still resonate. Although they have a
different complexion than our current, real-life foe, they’re brothers
in spirit–an international underground army of homicidal racist goons,
connected by e-mail and cellphones. (Christopher Hitchens called bin Laden-types

Although Sum
was shot before 9/11, director Phil Alden Robinson and his two credited screenwriters,
Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, approach the material with a fair degree of
intelligence–but not enough. Robinson seems to have studied films by the
master of large-canvas political thrillers, John Frankenheimer, director of
HBO’s grim, intelligent Path to War, plus The Manchurian Candidate,
Seven Days in May and Black Sunday (the first Hollywood thriller
to use the threat of mass terrorism as a plot device). Like Frankenheimer, Robinson
tells the story in dynamic yet jagged shots, and he’s bold enough to reach
for black comedy. (A Russian bomb technician wears a shirt that says, in Russian,
"I’m a bomb technician. If you see me running, try to catch up.")
Better yet, Robinson make the audience aware of political rituals and stagecraft.
Before the President makes his Super Bowl entrance, he hits a tape mark on the
floor; an ailing Russian premier orders an underling to describe him to the
media as "robust and healthy," then promptly keels over dead. Ryan
answers to the President (James Cromwell) and CIA Director William Cabot (Morgan
Freeman); the Chief Executive’s inner circle includes Philip Baker Hall,
Bruce McGill, Ron Rifkin and other first-rank character actors who seem at home
in boardrooms and limos. (Liev Schreiber has a small part as a globetrotting,
throat-slitting black-ops expert; his combination of puppy-dog charm and hulking
savagery is much more interesting than Affleck’s student-council eagerness.)
The movie nails the casual sense of entitlement that pervades the highest levels
of government. ("When I asked for your advice," Cabot tells Ryan during
a top-level Pentagon briefing, "I didn’t mean that you should actually

In the end,
alas, the film’s intelligence is all surface. Like the other Ryan pictures,
Sum gets dumber and trashier as it goes along. The A-bomb sequence is
appropriately blunt and terrifying; cinematographer John Lindley bleaches out
the color, the audio levels dip and Jerry Goldsmith’s buoyantly militaristic
score temporarily vanishes. The imagery is eerily powerful not just because
it’s treated with awe and respect, but also because, for the first time
since 1945, Americans don’t view mushroom clouds as abstractions. But the
movie’s sense of seriousness vanishes in minutes; only one of the film’s
above-the-line stars dies by the bomb, and we never see any anonymous victims
of fire or radiation in closeup, presumably because (God forbid) it might upset
too many people. The third act piles implausibility on top of absurdity; at
one point, the hero slips into a government building at the height of an international
nuclear crisis, sneaking past a flustered security guard by putting his thumb
over the photo on a stolen ID. Robinson even botches the film’s one potentially
great sequence–a climactic Godfather-style bit of crosscutting that
juxtaposes the signing of a U.S.-Russian peace treaty with quick shots of terrorist
baddies being violently (and secretly) eliminated. The sequence should’ve
aimed for irony and futility; even if we successfully track down and eradicate
one set of enemies, others will arise to replace them, and they’ll treat
our reprisals as justification for hating us in the first place. Instead, Sum
settles for the tried-and-true Hollywood exit vibe: All’s Well that Ends
Well. Pre-9/11, Blockbuster Video might have stocked this film in its "Action"
section; now it should be shelved under "Fantasy."


Girl fight:
It’s impossible to defend the new Jennifer Lopez movie Enough as
art, and it’s iffy as entertainment, too. But as exploitation, it’s
topnotch–a cartoon feminist answer to Fatal Attraction; a Walking
for women. It’s getting mostly terrible reviews, but it’ll
make a ton of money, and in a month I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on
the cover of Time or Newsweek. While Lopez has dark-skinned friends,
the movie never mentions race, but it exploits class and gender resentments
to the hilt. Director Michael Apted and screenwriter Nicholas Kazan (Reversal
of Fortune
) aren’t subtle people: plucky working-class heroine Slim
(Lopez) is swept off her feet and out of her waitressing job by a rich yuppie
(Billy Campbell), who ultimately reveals himself as a cold, controlling, womanizing
swine who’s not above savagely beating a woman who dares question his dishonesty.
The plot is summarized in every trailer and tv ad: after months on the road
living under assumed names with her darling little daughter, the fugitive Slim
goes back home, takes self-defense lessons and brings the fight to her evil
hubby, invading his bachelor pad and going mano-a-mano. The premise is dramatically
contrived, ethically wrongheaded and legally full of shit, tacitly endorsing
home invasion, premeditated assault and preemptive murder as valid forms of
self-defense. (The script insists that the husband’s request that Slim
return to her hometown for a custody hearing is just a ploy to kill her; gosh,
if you say so.) But despite its crudeness and stupidity, Enough works
like gangbusters because it visualizes (and improves upon) a fantasy entertained
by battered women throughout history: to show the bastard what it feels like.