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The Sum of All Fears (2002) starstar

Reviewed 2001-11-08: Ben Affleck is a good-looking young man. I enjoyed him in Changing Lanes (2002), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and his breakthrough film, Good Will Hunting (1997). He was also quite good in Chasing Amy that same year. What these four films have in common, and where they differ from The Sum of All Fears, is that Ben Affleck was not an action hero. Ben Affleck is no action hero. A romantic lead, maybe, but as the successor to Alec Baldwin and the estimable Harrison Ford in the role of Jack Ryan, CIA analyst, he's no Jack Ryan, either. He's got a gravitas factor of +3. Maybe. Not only is he "younged down," he's comparatively dumbed down. And that's only the beginning of the many problems with this film, directed by Phil Alden Robinson (who directed Field of Dreams, 1989).

First, the Arab terrorists were changed to neo-Nazis. Hey, I don't like neo-Nazis, either, but who's more likely to steal a nuke and blackmail the US with it? Is this PC run amok? Hello? Those weren't Christian choirboys who flew planes into buildings in NY and DC and killed 3,000 people! And why did the nuke have to go off in Baltimore -- my hometown, by the way? Was Washington, DC, unavailable? Did someone think, "If we show a film with Arab terrorists nuking DC, some real Arab terrorists might really nuke DC!" Oh, and they need a movie to help them figure this out? Where is your brain, Hollywood? Are you afraid of offending, um, Arab terrorists?

Ben Affleck as a young Jack Ryan

"I can't go on a mission. I only write reports."   "Then write a report about it."
Actually the terrorists, er, neo-Nazis want to start a war between the US and Russia, then take power in the aftermath (I'm not making this up!) so they leave the nuclear bomb near a Baltimore sports arena where the President (James Cromwell: gravitas factor +10) is attending a game with his CIA director, and Jack Ryan's reluctant mentor, Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman: gravitas factor +30). When Jack figures out that "the bomb is in play," he gets this message through to his boss when it's just about too late. Goodbye, Baltimore. But at least Jack's cellphone, PDA, and electronic ignition truck still work after the EMP of a nuclear blast. That's going to happen!

I do salute the special effects in this film (explained in the DVD version), but I'd be more impressed if the effort had gone into a better movie. It's a bad sign when the best scenes, the most exciting action, happen when the putative star is off-screen. Affleck never looks any worse than a guy having a bad day. Indeed, the most interesting character is the CIA gray ops specialist, John Clark (Liev Schreiber). And he kills people for a living! Also, this is definitely a "boy film," since the one female lead, Jack's girlfriend Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynahan, who played Natasha on HBO's "Sex and the City"), while pleasant to look at, is totally inconsequential to the story. As for the story, I haven't read the Tom Clancy novel on which the screenplay is based, and I don't agree with Clancy's politics, but he does spin exciting tales, if the other novels I have read are any guide. How then could The Sum of All Fears, a film featuring the nuking of an American city, elicit such a yawn? At least Ben Affleck is a good-looking young man.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.