With all due respect to the people of the real Baltimore, I have to say that the highlight — in terms of visual and dramatic force — of The Sum of All Fears is the moment when Baltimore gets nuked. The movie leads up to that mighty moment, but we don’t quite expect it when it hits, and it hits hard and quick. The sequence, which unintentionally and unavoidably plugs into our current wolf-hour preoccupations, is handled no more or less deftly — or seriously — than similar big-bang moments were in Independence Day, Deep Impact, or Armageddon. As before, we’re being teased with a visual of American apocalypse. It’s not that such Hollywood devastation is more obscene now — mass death as a plot point was always obscene. It’s that we’ve seen comparable obscenity on TV, for real, and we fear that we may see worse. The Sum of All Fears may not have set out to trade on the dread of the day, but it’s going to do just that.
If released in a calmer world, the movie would be received and understood, if not necessarily enjoyed, as yet another piece of militaristic pulp from the factory of Tom Clancy, in which only one ingenious American can avert catastrophe. That American, Jack Ryan, has presided over numerous Clancy novels and three previous movie adaptations: The Hunt for Red October, with Alec Baldwin, and Patriot Gamesand Clear and Present Danger, with Harrison Ford. Here, in Paramount’s attempt to reinvigorate the franchise, Ryan has been dunked in the fountain of youth, from which a dripping and tentative Ben Affleck emerges. Affleck’s uncertainty about whether he can shoulder a movie series translates well into this callower Ryan’s insecurity about being forced into situations beyond political analysis. Ryan’s self-deprecating instincts may be wrong, but Affleck’s are correct. He belongs in smaller, more intimate and conversational movies.
We’ve got another of those global crises: A low-yield nuclear bomb has wound up in the hands of a Fascist (Alan Bates, expostulating over a steady stream of cigarettes) who plans to start a nuclear war between America and an unstable Russia. The new Russian President Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds) comes on strong — a rhetorical “hardliner” — but Ryan suspects that forces beyond Nemerov’s control may be shaping his decisions; conveniently, Ryan wrote a paper on Nemerov and seems to be the only American who understands him. Even the American president (James Cromwell) and CIA director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) look askance at Ryan’s defense of Nemerov, even after the bomb — stashed in a cigarette machine in Baltimore’s football stadium (this is an anti-smoking movie if ever there was one) — goes off and brings both countries to the brink.
What follows the big bang is a great, tedious deal of rushing around and arguing. Ryan dashes into the fray, sometimes accompanied by Liev Schreiber as a dead-eyed agent who seems to belong in an earlier breed of spy movie. Directed, unaccountably, by the erratic Phil Alden Robinson (who made the sentimental gem Field of Dreams and the amusing caper film Sneakers), the movie collapses into scenes of manufactured tension and paranoia, culminating in one of those wonderfully dull face-offs in which the antagonists … type at each other. The Sum of All Fears won’t go down in history as anything much. As things calm down, it will be filed away as a franchise movie that avoids asking the most basic question: If we’re worried about how many nuclear weapons are out there, presumably lying around for the picking by terrorists and God knows who else, shouldn’t we be thinking about making sure there are fewer of the things to pick from?