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The Sum Of All Fears

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Sum Of All Fears

Starring: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 125 Minutes
Release Date: May 2002
Genres: Action, Suspense

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

When I was in college during the late 1950's I often thought, "Why bother? The world is going to end in a nuclear catastrophe before I graduate." But after chugging a few beers at the next fraternity house party and playing yet another game of touch football, I realized, "Yeah, our number is up, but what else is there to do? Go to work?" So I finished college and then, when Kennedy confronted Khrushchev over Cuban missiles, I said, "Aha, I knew timing was off, that's all." That passed and now we're in serious danger again. Islamic extremists are threatening to destroy Western culture, but luckily they won't have nuclear weapons for at least three years. Whew. But wait! What if an atomic or hydrogen bomb from the arsenals of the present nuclear powers got lost somewhere? Couldn't a madman pick it up and use it to knock out far more people than would a plane crashing into a building?" Therein lies the story of "The Sum of All Fears," part of novelist Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series ("The Hunt for Red October," "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger") dealing with the loss of one such bomb by an Israeli pilot during the 1973 Mideast war, discovered 29 years later buried in a garden.

Nuclear proliferation remains the biggest threat to world security today, but at least we can tell ourselves that the people in power are rational enough to restrain themselves lest they bring a terrible retaliation on their own countries. But what if some third force the type of enemy prevalent in the James Bond series were to get their hands on a nuke and use it either to blackmail the great powers or, even worse, to use it in order to provoke Russia and the U.S. to destroy each other? In "The Sum of All Fears" this is the specific motive of a small group of neo-Nazis led by billionaire fascist Dressler (Alan Bates) who arrange to buy the lost weapon for some $48 million, have it transported through the Israeli port of Haifa to Baltimore, and hide it inside a cigarette machine to be used during the Super Bowl game. In Dressler's all-too-knowing mind, the nuclear devastation of a bomb about one-fourth as powerful as the one used on Hiroshima would lead the American President Fowler (James Cromwell) to assume that this was ordered by Russian President Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds). An order to retaliate would lead to a counter-retaliation and before you know it the U.S. and Russia, both powers hated by these Nazis, would be destroyed. As Dressler put it, "Hitler was not crazy, but he was stupid to take on both the United States and Russia." Dressler would have the Americans and Russians do the dirty deed themselves.

Is this information a spoiler? For some, yes, but because "The Sum of All Fears" requires some background in political theory and history, many in the audience are bound to wonder what the heck is going on who is Dressler, what does he stand for, why is he doing this? The film is divided into two parts: in the opening segment, history Ph.D. Jack Ryan is called in by the C.I.A. director, William Cabot (Morgan Freeman), because Ryan had written a paper on the character of the Russian president. When a political debacle occurs in Nemerov's country, Ryan must clue the U.S. president into whether Nemerov actually ordered an attack on Chechnya or whether renegade generals had taken over the country. In the second part, after the nuclear devastation in Baltimore, the U.S. and Russia are both ready to launch nuclear missiles, purportedly to get a first-strike advantage. Ryan's job is to persuade both sides that the nuclear explosion was not the fault of either power and to get the two sides to stand down. Both the Russian and the American presidents are facing opposing arguments by their top advisers, who can be divided neatly into hawks and doves, with Defense Secretary Becker (Philip Baker Hall) taking the side that America must attack and Secretary of State Owens (Ron Rifkin) taking the stand-down attitude.

Though the film features a tepid romance between Ryan and his physician girlfriend Dr. Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynihan), the love stuff is thankfully kept to a minimum to avoid the goo that devastated "Pearl Harbor." I'll take the view that the first segment of the film is the better one: there is more human drama and Morgan Freeman, easily a superior actor when compared to Ben Affleck (or at least in a role that suits him better), has the major role and is terribly underused thereafter.. Director Phil Alden Robinson pumps up Jerry Goldsmith's music far too much during the most action-centered second segment and the human drama takes the back door to strictly macho posturing between the two sides. We do get the message that the U.S. and Russia and by extension every major power goes through an unceasing shifting between dovish views and hawkish responses (think Simon Peres vs. Arik Sharon and Bibi Netanyahu in Israel and Yassar Arafat's Fatah vs. the more militant organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian quarters). While there are sufficient scares in the facedown between the superpowers, much of Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne's script turns into the generic area inhabited by "Armageddon" and the like and is therefore ultimately less satisfying then Tom Clancy's novel should have been in this screen adaptation.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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