The Sum Of All Fears

cast: Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber, and Alan Bates

director: Phil Alden Robinson

118 minutes (12) 2002
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Paramount DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Tony Lee

A prequel to the more recent Jack Ryan adventures – Patriot Games (1992) and Clear And Present Danger (1994) which starred Harrison Ford – this Hollywood action/spy movie by Phil Alden Robinson (best known for whimsical baseball fantasy, Field Of Dreams, 1989) lacks both the narrative coherence and the Cold War dramatic tension of franchise originator The Hunt For Red October (1990, directed by John McTiernan), but does boast fine performances from the stars and a quality supporting cast (including Ron Rifkin, Philip Baker Hall, Bruce McGill, Colm Feore, Josef Sommer, and Irish actor Ciarán Hinds on terrific form as the Russian President!), plus several competently orchestrated, big scale action scenes.

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Whereas the earlier movies placed great emphasis upon clarity of storytelling, in spite of their highly complex plots full of impressive and convincing technical details, The Sum Of All Fears (aka: Der Anschlag) is little more than a hastily assembled collection of typical espionage plot devices (omniscient surveillance, nuclear terrorism, presidential meetings, failures of diplomacy or communication links, spectacular military hardware, impending warfare and global disaster). And yet, as before, the protagonist finds himself at the heart of world-shaking events and testing situations seemingly designed to illustrate H.G. Wells’ remark about our history being “more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” There is a happy ending here, as both American and Russian leaders realise their error before it’s too late, but The Sum Of All Fears is arguably a retrograde production, set in a fictional world where the politicians, military chiefs and security advisors have learned nothing from the madness of armed conflict in modern history, just as the filmmakers have forgotten the lessons in the comedy and tragedy of nukes provided by Kubrick’s seminal Dr Strangelove (1963).
With its conspiracy to disrupt international relations between nuclear powers Sum… echoes John Mackenzie’s similarly themed spy thriller, The Fourth Protocol (1987) based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth. However, that film lacked actual use of its atomic weapon (smuggled into Britain by Russians hoping to provoke war between UK and USA). Here, as in the other recent borderline-SF nuke thrillers – Broken Arrow (1996), The Peacemaker (1997), True Lies (1994), etc – the bomb goes off … with an inevitable sense of awesome glee, not shock and horror, continuing the tendency of Hollywood blockbusters to casual deployment of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as just another element of screen entertainment. Older films, such as WarGames (1983), focused on the hero’s struggle to prevent atomic apocalypse, or showed us how the world might end in chaos and barbarity – see Miracle Mile (1989) – but nowadays the mere threat of nuclear holocaust is not enough to hold our attention. We have to see the mushroom cloud rise into a darkening sky. Perhaps this aspect of Robinson’s movie makes it more disturbing and contentious because the audience are presented with the notion that nuclear disaster is only ‘routine’ bad news, like an airline crash or a train wreck, localised and survivable by the majority, even within the limits of a city like Baltimore – the primary target (during a presidential visit) here. But what this adventure lacks is a real sense of terror at the prospect of nuclear terrorism. There’s a wholly unpleasant mood of contempt for viewers’ sensibilities hiding behind this movie’s early scenes, suggesting that without the second act’s climactic spectacle of nuclear detonation some viewers might feel cheated. It may not to be a problem for any fatally cynical fans of action cinema, but it does undermine the story’s credibility as drama, so we care far less about any of the characters than we do the special effects, and Sum Of All Fears is much less interesting than it ought to have been.
The DVD has an anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby digital 5.1 sound in English and Czech, plus English subtitles. Disc extras: featurette A Cautionary Tale, visual effects exposé, a fascinating audio commentary by director Robinson and technothriller novelist Tom Clancy – that has the famous author finding plenty to criticise regarding matters of authenticity in this screen adaptation of his novel, and a second commentary track by Robinson and cinematographer John Lindley.