The Sum of All Fears Review
Well we’ve finally come to the end of the road for Tom Clancy’s character, Jack Ryan, at least in so far as concerns the film adaptations that have been made to date – who knows what the future will hold. I’m grateful to all those who have come this far with me, but, to those who have just joined us, it might be worth considering returning to this start of this retrospective, and at least skimming your way through my reflections on the excellent opening salvo, the Connery/Baldwin-starring The Hunt for Red October, and then the two subsequent ‘sequels’, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, which arguably pseudo-rebooted the series with Harrison Ford in the lead role. The reviews are here:
After establishing his as the defining version of Jack Ryan, Harrison Ford was due to return to the role soon after Clear and Present Danger. He’d signed up for 3 films, and, after dabbling with the notion of doing Clancy’s earlier The Cardinal of the Kremlin, they deemed that the third should be an adaptation of The Sum of All Fears, the chronologically sequential follow-up to Clear and Present Danger, at least in terms of Clancy’s original canon of work. Phillip Noyce, the director behind both of Ford’s previous Ryan outings, spent 18 months on pre-production, getting everything ready for filming.
The screenplay was just the very broad strokes of Clancy’s original novel: Jack Ryan, having effectively ousted the President, was still the Deputy Director of Intelligence at the CIA, but was not on great terms with the new President either, and the breakdown in communication between them leaves Jack out in the cold when a nuclear attack on US soil puts America (once again) on the brink of a Third World War with Russia. Of course, Jack figures out that it is a set-up by a third party, to get America and Russia to wipe one another out, but since he can no longer get through to the President, he is forced to use back-channels to communicate with the Russian President in a desperate effort to de-escalate the situation.
“We've gotta choose someone else to face off against besides the Russians all the time.”
“Really? Who else has 27,000 nukes for us to worry about?”
“It's the guy with one I'm worried about.”
I don’t really know what Harrison Ford didn’t like about the script he was offered for The Sum of All Fears, but he clearly did not like something because he rejected it, and subsequently left the film series. It was a great loss, and a great shame for Ford too, and I really cannot understand how he agreed to films like Hollywood Homicide, Firewall, Random Hearts, Six Days Seven Nights, and The Devil’s Own – and yet still rejected doing The Sum of All Fears. Even his decision to play the action-hero President in Wolfgang Petersen’s fairly shallow Die-Hard-On-The-President’s-Plane film, Air Force One, was a fairly feeble attempt to do what he would have been doing anyway in the Clancy series, in the fullness of time (the character of Jack Ryan would go on to be made President in just two books’ time). Whilst there has recently been some talk of Ford returning to the role, it really seems quite unlikely that the Studios would agree to it and, even if they did, they would need to move pretty fast to get it going considering his age. No, Ford closed the book on Ryan, and pretty-much sealed the character’s fate.
Subsequently, the Studios reached something of an impasse with regards to the whole franchise. Jack Ryan was not the established name that they had hoped that he would have been by now (like Bond); they had already switched lead actor once, fairly early on in the series, and, not long after Harrison Ford had settled into the role, and audiences were getting to know the character, they lost him too. It was difficult to know where to go from here.
The best decision would have been to either recast an older actor to pick up where Ford left off, or reboot the entire series right from the beginning with a new, younger actor. Of course, film studios being film studios, they picked the third option: continue the series with the next sequential story, The Sum of All Fears, set it in contemporary times, and recast the part of Jack Ryan with a younger, more audience-friendly actor. How would this work? Simple, rewrite all of the characters to be younger versions of the ones from the book, and completely rewrite the story to incorporate Jack Ryan as a simple fledgling CIA analyst. The Studios probably thought that it was a really clever decision. It wasn’t.
“I don't go on the, you know, missions, I just write reports for the CIA.”
And so the script was changed. Many strands stayed the same: we followed a nuclear bomb, buried in the desert for three decades, then discovered and sold to neo-Nazis intent on using it as the agent provocateur for a war between the US and Russia, in an attempt to wipe them both out. The US President in pretty gung-ho; the new Russian President is very proud. The fuse is set for all-out war. But now, at the centre of it, we have a young Jack Ryan, basic CIA analyst, who is currently dating the girl that we know will be his future wife, a doctor named Cathy, but who finds that his academic studies on the new Russian President draw the attention of the Director of the CIA, who dispatches him to find out if there is any truth to the rumours that the Russians are secretly working on an ‘anonymous’ nuclear bomb, with which they can strike on the US without fears of reprisal. Of course what Jack really discovers is that there is a third party catalyst in the mix; the trouble is that, after several attacks on US soil, ostensibly by Russian forces, nobody will listen to him.
Aside from immensely frustrating the author of the novels and creator of the character of Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy, only furthering his disenchantment with the film franchise, the reality was that there was no forethought in the decision made to reboot the series with a young Jack Ryan and The Sum of All Fears. It was a grandstanding, epic book, arguably set on a larger scale than many of his earlier works – including Red October and Clear and Present Danger – and the notion of using this story as a debut for the character of Jack Ryan was just an ill-conceived, foolish one. Where on earth would they go from here? Nuclear bombs exploding on US soil; retaliatory strikes on both sides; aircraft carriers and air bases being taken out; the US and Russia on the brink of World War III; the President and his key staff under personal attack – how do you do a sequel to this movie?
“They practically sank an aircraft carrier, their missile silos are hot, we're getting nothing but bullsh*t from the Russian President, and let's not forget how this thing started – they tried to kill me!”
The Studios, including producer Mace Neufeld, who had been on-board all of the Jack Ryan adaptations since Red October, were clearly hoping that both the character and the franchise would have some future after this second reboot, as they had signed the new actor playing the lead role up for a potential three movies. The trouble is, after such a grandstanding opening episode, and with Hollywood being the way it is, the assumed audience expectation is ‘bigger and better’ – it doesn’t get much bigger than the plot to The Sum of All Fears. The reality is that once you’ve defused a Third World War, you will find it hard to top it in the next instalment.
Interestingly, the movie borrows heavily from The Hunt for Red October (and Crimson Tide) in its tense battle to avert conflict, yet Red October fared better as telling a reasonable-scale story, but setting it in against the backdrop of a larger political climate (the Cold War). The Sum of All Fears not only tells a grander-scale event-movie story (complete with disaster-movie-style nuclear devastation) but it does so against a fairly limp political backdrop – set in 2002, the Cold War was long dead and buried, and the Russian ‘opponents’ feel antiquated and clichéd. Of course another fatal flaw was in the portrayal of the nuclear aftermath: even if they tried to use the ‘prevailing winds’ argument to justify our hero traipsing around so close to ground zero with no risk of radiation poisoning whatsoever, the ridiculous ‘happy engagement scene in the park with all the crowds cheering at united peace’ was particularly shallow in the wake of 9/11, and should have been ripped out before the film was released (it was shot pre-9/11).
Furthermore, in terms of the franchise, where Red October had at least semi-established the character of Jack Ryan (even if the movie was a double-hander, with almost half of the focus on the defecting Russian sub Captain), and where the Harrison Ford debut Patriot Games wholly established his version of the character, The Sum of All Fears merely goes through the motions, treading in the same footprints left behind from previous introductory stories (outspoken CIA analyst gets in over his head), without ever really developing the character to any substantial extent.
“When I asked for your advice, I didn’t mean that you should actually speak.”
Of course I blame Ben Affleck to a certain degree, but I don’t think that he was the reason for the overall failure of the film (and I don’t mean in Box Office returns, it comfortably doubled its initial budget), or for the death of the franchise. Affleck was approached even before a director was hired, signing on soon after Ford left, and leaping into his shoes with verve and passion. He researched the job of a CIA analyst, read up on Clancy’s books, and, I suspect, was hoping that this was the kind of multi-picture franchise deal that could make him an A-list star. Clearly his forte lies with productions much closer to his heart – Good Will Hunting and, more recently, The Town – and it was simply impossible for him to easily step into the shoes of Jack Ryan after Harrison Ford had so clearly effortlessly become the character just a few years earlier. Even Clancy did not mind Affleck all that much – writing a subsequent book, Red Rabbit, specifically for the younger actor. Unfortunately the book did not fare too well, and the production studios just did not go forth with a further instalment.
The supporting cast were amidst the best across the entire franchise, even if the characters that they brought to life were taken from the book in name only. Morgan Freeman (Red, Million Dollar Baby) plays Cabot, the Director of the CIA, who, in the book, was a clumsy figurehead that Ryan, as Deputy Director, has to cover for at every stage; in the film, Cabot is Ryan’s mentor, the person who brings him into the fold – and whilst the changes do further do damage to the franchise as a whole, Freeman brings so much to the role that you can’t help but love pretty-much every scene that he is in. You can’t help but smile when Cabot chuckles at Ryan’s inability to persuade his girlfriend that he really does work for the CIA; or sit up and pay attention when he advises Ryan on how to best deal with United States Senators; or feel the genuine fear when he gets the call stating that the bomb is in play, and he realises that the President’s life could be in danger. If only they had made him a young Admiral Greer (Ryan’s real mentor in the books, and the character who was brought to life by James Earl Jones in all three previous adaptations), his could have been another enduring character over the years and over the subsequent planned instalments.
“Senators don’t like to be surprised. I always give them a hint of what it is I’m going to tell them, then I give them a little while to get used to it... then I tell them.”
Whilst the ‘love story’ feels clichéd and unnecessary at times, Bridget Moynahan (I, Robot; Battle: LA) does reasonably well in the role of Cathy, the young girlfriend – and eventual wife – of Ryan. She has genuine chemistry with Ben Affleck, and, their relationship, whilst extraneous to most of the rest of the proceedings, does allow for a few ‘cute’ moments, including the aforementioned one where Ryan tries, and fails, to convince her that he does actually work for the CIA.
The US President and his staff are also all represented by familiar faces. James ‘LA Confidential’ Cromwell’s President Fowler may, to a certain extent, be a little bit close (not just in looks) to Donald Moffat’s shamed President in the previous film, Clear and Present Danger, but he does a good job at being strong, forthright, but not reckless; and his supporting staff include not only Freeman’s Director of the CIA but also Ron Rifkin (Alias) as the Secretary of State, Bruce McGill (Vantage Point, Law Abiding Citizen) as the National Security Advisor and Phillip Baker Hall (The Insider, Air Force One) as the Secretary of Defense. On the Russian side of things we get Irish actor Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) doing a superb Russian accent – so good that even Clancy could not tell that he was untrained in Russian – as the Russian President, and bringing more than enough gravitas to the part, and supported by another Brit actor, Michael Byrne (Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Braveheart), who does a great job with such a small part, as the Russian President’s advisor Grushkov – although, in the book, this role would be more self-serving than loyal, it works reasonably well this way instead.
In terms of the villainous conspirators, things don’t fare as well – changed from Muslim terrorists to Neo-Nazis (not out of political correctness – as already mentioned, the film was shot before 9/11 – but because it was felt that Muslim terrorists could not organise such a grand-scale attack; of course this is painfully ironic in light of those subsequent attacks), they almost all feel like creepy caricatures; cartoonish relics from old Bond films who dispatch anyone who opposes them via means of an oversized henchman who looms in the background. Although Brit actor Alan Bates (Gosford Park) gets a few decent lines as the leader of the pack, he is handicapped by the litany of clichés that surround him.
“Let no man call us crazy. They called Hitler crazy, but Hitler wasn't crazy. He was stupid. You don't fight Russia and America. You get Russia and America to fight each other, and destroy each other.”
One other large character from the books, arguably second-only to Jack Ryan in terms of importance, was John Clark, the black-ops veteran who had encountered Ryan for the first time back in Clear and Present Danger (both the book, and the novel) and who was crow-barred into this plot The Sum of All Fears as a distant, twisted variation of the character from the same book. I can only assume that the purpose was merely to provide a little more action, but it comes at the expense of side-lining one of the most important characters in the series. Liev Schreiber (Wolverine, Salt) brings the part to life here, taking over the mantle from a somewhat miscast Willem Dafoe, and doing a fantastic job with very little material to work with – coming across as both consummately professional and utterly deadly, even despite his limited screen-time. Unfortunately, his part just does not fit in with any of Clancy’s established canon of work, and only further screws up the chronology.
Indeed The Sum of All Fears, even if you could somehow pretend that it was just a standalone thriller, is dragged down by the check-box-list of clichés that it feels obliged to conform to: the hero has to have a pointless love interest; he has to be right when everybody else (even Cabot) is wrong; and he has to get into a pointless fight with the lead henchman just to show that he is physically capable as well as intellectually adept. Anybody who has seen the movie might wonder why, if he is in direct contact with the Advisor to the Russian President (who happens to be standing right behind the Russian President), he needs to go on a protracted running-around-a-flaming-Baltimore scene just to fight his way to a ‘hotline’ so that he can make contact with the Russian President directly. You see, this is what happens when you extensively change a solid source novel: you end up with far too many plot holes and simply have to ignore some and hope that the ‘whole’ stands up (and, just as an aside, why, pray tell, is Jerry 'Alien' Goldsmith's score so generic and clumsy that it attempts to be just as 'exciting' during the race-to-find-Ryan-a-tie scene as it is during the race-to-stop-World-War-III climax?).
Unfortunately The Sum of All Fears is also not the sum of all its reasonably entertaining parts – and the overall production simply does not work. The book was one of the best outings for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and even the original screenplay probably had enough bite to make for a great movie, had it stayed true to the already well-laid path of the character, retained Ford, or even someone else more appropriately chosen for their age (i.e. late 40s, early 50s), and had it been conscious of where the characters would need to go from here.
As it is, The Sum of All Fears makes for a decent thriller, with some interesting set-pieces, some tense moments and a broad range of fairly good acting talent. It does not necessarily feel like anything that we haven’t seen before – and, indeed done better (think: Season 2 of 24 crossed with the political backdrop of Red October) – and feels consistently like an inappropriate introduction to the character who, by the end of it all, appears to be even less established than they were after the previous movies; but, as just another ‘one-shot’ political thriller, it’s a perfectly watchable and often fairly enjoyable movie.
Will this be the last we see of Jack Ryan? Who knows – there has been talk of doing another reboot telling the story of an even younger Ryan, or perhaps his father’s story, or even his son’s – all of which have been mapped out in subsequent Clancy ‘prequel’ books; as well as the aforementioned rumours of Ford reprising the role... However it’s all in limbo now and there is no longer a simple solution to fix the problem. And the biggest problem that put us in this mess in the first place is the failed reboot that was The Sum of All Fears – a good movie, a poor introduction to the character, and a terrible first instalment in a planned series, using up all of the best, grand-scale ideas but failing to do the most important thing: make Jack Ryan into more of a James Bond-esque household name.
At the end of the day, if you set out to reboot a franchise based on an acclaimed series of novels and an established literary character, and end up instead not only failing to establish that character, but actually killing the entire franchise, nobody is going to remember the better aspects of your movie; they will merely remember it for being the largest nail in Jack Ryan’s coffin.