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Megatons of fun: 'The Sum of All Fears'

By Jackson Murphy
web posted June 3, 2002

Can we handle the release of the new Tom Clancy Jack Ryan movie, "The Sum of All Fears," just a week after receiving multiple terrorist warnings?

Um yes.

Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears
Affleck in The Sum of All Fears

In a nutshell "The Sum of All Fears" sees Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) go from obscure C.I.A. analyst to go-to-guy for C.I.A director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman). Sure, and the intelligence agencies always listen to the fish swimming up the stream. Do the 13 page memo by F.B.I. agent Colleen Rowley detailing the failure to connect dots between Moussaoui and Osama bin Laden's terror network, and the Phoenix Memo ring any bells. Was anyone listening to the real Jack or Jane Ryan?

Um no.

Predictably Ryan does exactly what he does in the first installment of the series, "The Hunt for Red October". You must take in good faith that Jack Ryan is the smartest guy the C.I.A has, and whatever Ryan thinks is the complete opposite of pretty much every other agent or man especially if they happen to wear a uniform. In "October" Ryan suggests that the new Soviet super submarine is not going to attack the United States. Instead he believes that the Captain of the submarine, Marko Ramius, is actually planning to defect. How does he know this? Because he once met the man. Maybe this is the same gut feeling Bush got about his pal "Pootie-Poot" when he peered into his soul.

This time out Ryan believes that a chemical attack in Chechnya cannot be the work of the new Russian President because, again, he knows him -- he wrote a paper on him. Of course he did. Oh and did I mention Neo-Nazi's are the baddies? Oops. These all-purpose villains are just what the worldwide box office is looking for; everyone hates the Nazi's.

These Nazi's are visionary though. They are playing the ultimate triangulation game hoping to drive Russia and America into nuclear war paving the way for a post-war return of Fascism. Hardly original. But I can already hear the cheers in the theatres of Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and the caves as they wonder what could be. Fascism, Islamo-Fascism, can you see the difference? I can't see the difference.

Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander, Male Model
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander, Male Model

At any rate, the problem with Affleck doing all this, rather than previous Ryan's Alec Baldwin or Harrison Ford, is that you just don't really believe he is a.) Smart, b.) Capable of earning a Ph.D, or c.) Possessing even the slightest amount of gravitas. All I could think of was Derek Zoolander, male model -- he's really, really good looking, but boy is he dumb. I am not the first to note that Affleck comes from a long line of actors simply incapable of portraying someone with a Ph.D. Jonathan V. Last writing in the Weekly Standard has his own list of Least Plausible Actors in the role of Ph.D. that includes Nicole Kidman ("The Peacemaker") and Elizabeth Shue ("The Saint"). But now with Affleck's performance, Last says, "There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Ben Affleck." And how!

Some of the other members of the cast are better, some are worse. The members of the President's cabinet are extremely good character actors totally wasted and reduced to mindless post catastrophe bickering. As if Powell, Rumsfeld, or Rice would be so hapless. The best parts of the movie showcase the admirable work of Liev Schreiber as the more interesting-than-Jack Ryan one-man super-spy. And for Canadian viewers enjoy the performance of the guy who played "Trudeau" doing similar yeoman work as a Nazi thug. (Insert punch line at your own discretion)

The movie is billed as high-drama about the threat of weapons of mass destruction. But it is in the same class as 1997's "The Peacemaker" which dealt with stolen nuclear weapons, nuclear explosions, and a lone army colonel and a civilian piecing together the clues, stopping the bomb, and falling in love. Unfortunately "The Peacemaker" didn't have Nazi's -- advantage Clancy.

During the 1980's there were plenty of nuke films. Most were either banana peel comedies like 1985's "Spies like Us" or apocalyptic tales like "The Road Warrior" or "The Terminator". Like Ryan both C.I.A. spies in "Spies like Us", Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Millbarge, were desk jockeys thrown into the field ending up saving the day. Coincidence?

Want further evidence that Hollywood cannot credibly cope with the threat of weapons of mass destruction? Check out "Back to the Future" which saw sleepy Hill Valley professor Doc Brown dupe Libyan terrorists out of their stolen weapons grade plutonium to run his Delorean time machine.

Ultimately the climax is somewhat dull and disappointing. The sequence designed to pull people into the theatres, the nuclear explosion, is treated not as 'the sum of all fears' but as just another terrorist attack-something to be easily overcome providing the proper prevailing winds. But the fact that Ryan, and what seems like the only four other people working for the C.I.A, can't overcome every danger suggests an acknowledgement that even if our real agents are as clever as those on the big screen, terrorists can strike at will. We may be able to avoid Nazi provoked nuclear war, just not singular attacks which lie beyond the best efforts of our Ryan's and Bond's (James not Barry).

So it seems odd that today's filmmakers would choose to see the most dangerous threat, as sinister cabal of Nazi's. How very politically correct of you Hollywood. Sure the movie was made prior to 9/11, but this shouldn't excuse it from playing dumb by pandering to international audiences.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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