June 4, 2002 
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The Sum Of All Fears
This sum does not quite add up
Affleck's frat boy meets Freeman's wry laughs

Nuggehalli Nigam

Films with a limited agenda have a relatively lower risk of failure. Films with more ambitious themes have a more daunting task.

They aim to confront issues that are extraordinary and attempt to present them through the prism of lacquered cinematography and grandiloquent gestures.

These ambitions sometimes serve as an albatross around the film's neck. The slightest mistake is seen as a sign of failure, and the film collapses under the weight of its own expectations.

Film critics seem to understand this. Ambitious flicks with ground-breaking potential often meet an uncharacteristically patient and forgiving audience. After all, it takes a brave soul to push the envelope, and the poor sod must be given as much encouragement as possible.

The Sum Of All Fears is a perfect candidate for this kind of mollycoddling by film critics. Even by these liberal standards, it fails to deliver the goods.

The film addresses two notorious issues: the possibility of nuclear blast in the heart of America, and the terrorist implications of far right groups in Europe. Along the way, it also discusses the archaic possibility of a nuclear war between America and Russia. While the first issue is treated merely as a prop for all the espionage thrills the film has to offer, the second is treated perfunctorily and has limited visual or aural impact.

Though the US-Russia nuclear posturing culminating in a tense dιtente is perhaps the most appealing part of the film, it is reduced to simplistic statements emanating from each side.

The film is all about a nuclear device made in the US that charts a tortuous course from an American laboratory and an Israeli fighter jet to an Arab villager and a European Neo-Nazi.

The Sum Of All Fears William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) as a taciturn CIA Chief and the famous Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) as a rookie CIA agent try to prevent the bomb from exploding in the middle of a football game. The Neo-Nazis want to make it seem as if the Russians have done it and thereby initiate a catastrophic nuclear war between the nations. It is now up to Jack Ryan to prevent this from happening, and save the world.

When author Tom Clancy created Jack Ryan, he probably envisioned a character full of daring and wit, pumped up with patriotic fervor and idealistic values. Ben Affleck, in perhaps the first casting mistake of his career, comes across as a preppy, smart aleck kid who has used his old-boy network to inveigle himself into high political circles.

The nuclear blast in the movie is no secret. Everyone watching anticipates it. But instead of cinematically elucidating the horrors of this unthinkable carnage, the film quickly reduces it to a bad Hollywood studio special effects show. As Jack Ryan sidles through the disaster area emailing from a trendy palm pilot lookalike, it is hard for the audience to transport itself to ground zero. It feels more like them taking part in a boring high voltage video game.

The raving and ranting of the President and his cohorts are also divorced from reality --- the President mouths expletives like a drunken sailor, an unhinged security adviser gets apoplectic whenever there is mention of Russia, and a counterpoint in the guise of an unruffled old friend tries to steer the President away from the nuclear button.

Ultimately, a feeling of ennui is created in what could have been one of the most exciting cabinet meetings in American history.

The Sum Of All Fears Morgan Freeman is the silver lining in this tired movie. He could well have been the saving grace but his role is too constrained by the narrative to have a lasting impact. Yet he manages a few laughs. When Freeman and Affleck meet the new Russian President, Alexander Nemerov (Claran Hinds in a nice cameo), Affleck almost offends the Russian President by alluding to his playboy history, before deftly extricating himself from an embarrassing situation (it is interesting how Affleck comes into his own in cheeky frat boy roles).

The Russian President, impressed with Affleck's presence of mind, turns to Freeman and says, "I like him." Freeman, who saw Affleck come close to spoiling a diplomatic relationship before it even began, says wryly, "In that case, so do I."

The surprising thing about this film is how relevant its themes are in these troubled times. The film is about two powers on the verge of nuclear war, and terrorists playing a grotesque game with the minds and hearts of world leaders. Even if the film were to be reduced to plain text and read out in monosyllabic tones, the audience would be left gasping.

Yet, despite its explosive material, this film all but implodes due to a trite plot and lackadaisical acting.

The Sum Of All Fears will be known less for what it did, and more for what it did not.


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