Erik Jaccard returns, once again, to the world of whatever we were watching ten years ago. This time, he’s re-viewing the Ben Affleck-starring reboot of the Jack Ryan saga, and weighing it heavily against another very important Tom Clancy adaptation from his lifetime.
The Sum of All Fears
Dir. Phil Alden Robinson
I should start off by noting that I’ve wanted to be Jack Ryan since I was about eleven years old. It was in 1990, the year that The Hunt for Red October was released, that I decided this was my kind of action hero: a nerdy (yet hunky and somewhat mysterious) academic who languished in back rooms, poring over detailed reports on obscure minutiae that no one who mattered ever cared to read, only to be called on at the right moment to prove his mettle under duress. As a child and even into my teenage years, I was never all that impressed by standard Schwarzenegger, Stallone, or Willis action heroes. Maybe it was that their courage, bravery, and unflagging dedication always seemed unlikely to me, or at least unattainable. Ryan’s heroic tenor was more muted, less flamboyant, and ultimately seemed — at the time — most attractive and believable to me. It meshed more accurately with the models of masculinity available in my actual life and it appealed to my inner nerd, with which I was most comfortable, rather than alienating me through the promotion of mythical brute strength, direct and decisive action, and one-dimensionality. Though I was never a comic book reader, I nonetheless gravitated towards bookish heroes like Ryan, who may not have possessed any superhuman powers, flashy outfits (unless you count his navy whites), or witty one-liners, but who nonetheless proved indispensable in seemingly real-world conflicts because of their access to information. In the larger military complex of which they are only a part, they function more as conduits than people, channels through which data is collected and transmitted. You don’t bring a Jack Ryan hero into the picture because he’ll automatically know what to do; you bring him into the picture because he has information that will help the guy who knows what to do know what to do. It’s all very passive, this intellectual heroism, but where it becomes active is in the quest to get that information to the right people before they do something wrong.
Even now, twenty plus years later, I find myself titillated at the prospect of an academic hero-figure, a guy who can fight when called upon to do so, but whose righteousness derives more from bookishness and ethical-intellectual might. Ryan, or at least the young Ryan depicted in Red October, is not so much a hero out to save the day as he is a thinker who will stop at nothing to prove a theory. More standard action figures tend to crash their way through a plot with an ingrained sense of determination to save the girl, get the bad guy, or avenge a death, leaving questions of intellectual superiority to the geeks in the back room. Thinkers in this generic view of action heroes are consultants, oracles of a kind, whose sole function is to act abet the hero’s quest by offering up their esoteric cache of nerdy information or bringing new technology to the fore. The Ryan mythos, created in and by Tom Clancy’s long-running series of military thrillers, turns on the transformation of one such academic type into a reluctant hero, a living, breathing daredevil, crazy enough to attempt to board a submarine in the mid-Atlantic by helicopter, but self-effacing enough to casually deflect this heroism with an offhand remark (“Next time you have a bright idea, Jack, just put it in a memo.”). Looking back, I can see why I found this version of celluloid savoir so appealing. When my eleven-year-old self looked inwards, he most likely would not have seen a superhero in the making. Instead, he would have caught a glimpse of an awkward, gangly, bookish young boy afraid of the limelight but desperate for some kind of social recognition, even if only of the intellectual variety. I think I also would have wanted to be seen as someone doing good (and here we veer back towards conventional action hero-land), someone working towards a relatively uncomplicated version of ‘right.’ In all of his filmic manifestations, Ryan has brought this kind of unflinching moral center to a world full of power politics, ethical uncertainty, and moral ambiguity. Though he never turns to didacticism or moralizing, you always just know that Jack’s going to do right by the country, by his family, by his closest peers, by goodness, and most of all, by the truth. There are few more weighty invocations than that, but somehow my young self got sucked into its orbit, just as I let myself be drawn in by the character around which the concept seemed to hover.
Twelve years later, at the slightly less tender age of 23, I was equally convinced that the Jack Ryan I’d always known and loved (even through his reincarnation via Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) would reemerge unscathed in the form of Ben Affleck in Phil Alden Robinson’s 2002 Ryan mythos reboot The Sum of All Fears.
How was it then?
As I recall, I watched the film in a downtown Seattle cinema by myself as a Sunday afternoon epilogue to a very late Saturday night (I had a lot of those back then). Maybe it was the hangover slowly creeping it nasty way through my skull, or maybe it was the greasy cheeseburger I had eaten right before heading to the theater, but, as I recall, I was particularly underwhelmed by the film then. This makes sense, given how dedicated I was to Red October, and how badly (and irrationally) I wanted to reproduce the experience of Ryan I’d enjoyed as a pre-teen. However, even as a hungover 23 year-old wanting nothing more than a couple hours of engaging cinematic action, I left feeling disappointed. Everything about the film seemed adequate at the time, but nothing was extraordinary. The stock scenes requisite for such military thrillers (see below) were good but never satisfying, and I distinctly remember thinking that Affleck’s Ryan seemed less the reluctant hero that I remembered and more an unlikely one, his quest to ascertain the source of a devastating nuclear attack stretching the bounds of plausibility in a way that Red October had not.
Neither was the film helped by the timing of its release. Both the novel and the film are very much a product of the 1990s, with their post-Cold War ‘what do we do about the Russians’ tension mixed with what then seemed like the political sideshows of Arab nationalism (in the novel) and European neo-fascism (in the film). In the 1990s, this backdrop made sense, but in May of 2002 there was only one political show in town and it was called ‘the War on Terror.’ Set against the newly emergent mega-bogeyman of Islamic Fundamentalism, the neo-fascist syndicate bent on global chaos in The Sum of All Fears seemed quaint, nostalgic, and, frankly, irrational in contrast to the political shitstorm playing itself out across the actually existing world. The idea that a group of neo-Nazi strongmen could blow up the Super Bowl with a nuclear bomb and then try and get Russia and America to duke it out before the dust settled was certainly plausible enough, it just didn’t seem quite relevant. I’ve always thought that one of the reasons no one sees the surprise Nazi attack coming in the film is not because it’s so byzantine as to be confusing, but because it’s so unlikely that you wouldn’t look for it unless you were nuts (or Jack Ryan). In this sense, perhaps the film does actually manage to unwittingly dramatize the catastrophe of 9/11, albeit indirectly.
Finally, I remember thinking that the film seemed to have spent a large portion of its budget on casting and far less on production, verisimilitude, and, well, stuff that looked good. There’s plenty of star power there, with Affleck at this height of his pre-Daredevil/Gigli box office pull and Morgan Freeman as in-demand as ever. The cast is nicely rounded out by veteran Shakespearean actors Alan Bates and Ciarán Hinds, as well as James Cromwell. However, the rest of the film’s bells and whistles seem muted and less colorful, its effects somewhat flat, and its attention to detail relatively uninspired.
Is it Better or Worse Than I Remember?
I think it’s actually a little better, though this likely has something to do with the fact that I’m no longer as much concerned with idolizing Jack Ryan, or in nostalgically thinking back to my younger self’s idolization of him. But really, ten years on it is much more obvious to me just how badly The Sum of All Fears’ Ryan reboot wants to recapture the character-driven ethos and Cold War tension that made Red October such a satisfying experience for a filmgoers (and particularly young to middle aged male filmgoers ready and willing to pay for two hours of escapist military fantasy and action hero role-playing). While this surely isn’t something to blame the film for (as most reboots clearly attempt to capture the same kind of newness in repetition), it just doesn’t really come off as well here. Despite working with a new plot, the film recycles, rather than recreates, the same characters and moments, the same tensions and dilemmas. Rather than a clever reboot that builds on older mythologies while creatively inventing newer, relevant dimensions through characterization and plot, The Sum of All Fears is mostly just another exercise in stock-in-trade filmmaking. This extends from the supposed gravitas of its operatic and military-derived score to the long sequence of overdone ‘military thriller’ moments that make up its patchwork plot.
Two such moments are lifted in a kind of visual verbatim from The Hunt for Red October, the first being the inevitable appeal by an inner circle of military brass and politicos for an academic cubicle-jockey from CIA to provide a précis on a newly emergent global threat, in this case the ascension of the Putin-esque Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds) to the Russian presidency. In the process of doing so, Ryan, called on by bigwigs to mechanically regurgitate the information he spends his days assiduously collecting and synthesizing, ends up floating an arcane, counter-intuitive, and utterly academic theory that we know will turn out to be true, but which is rashly dismissed by those in power. Amusing, incendiary, and tense, this is one of the best sequences in Red October, buoyed by playful performances by James Earl Jones’s Admiral Greer and Richard Jordan’s National Security Advisor Jeffrey Pelt. But by trying to match the earlier scene’s crackling tension step for step, Sum merely manages to reduce itself to a version of it, and a banal and underwhelming version of it at that. The same goes for the frustrated analyst’s final ranting confrontation with authority at the height of the crisis, wherein Ryan is nearly forced to physically shove his way into the minds of those responsible for making decisions. Again, in Red October, this produces an extremely satisfying standoff between Scott Glenn’s charismatic Captain Bart Mancuso and Baldwin’s Ryan. In Sum this scene is replayed, but with Affleck righteously badgering a nameless, faceless army officer to let him access a hotline to Moscow. Maybe it’s just that I’d seen it before, but in the latter scene — in which Affleck rants about how, if not allowed entry, everyone will surely die! — plays as a much less effective version of the earlier one. This reductionism is ultimately what shadows the film from beginning to end, the seemingly self-conscious attitude of imitation rather than extension or elaboration.
One of the film’s major successes is the development of the relationship between Ryan and CIA director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman), which clearly builds from the relationship established in the earlier films between both Baldwin and Ford’s Ryan and James Earl Jones’s Admiral James Greer. More than anything, this gives depth to Ryan’s character, emphasizing the mentor-mentee dynamic and foregrounding the ways in which, committed to his job and the CIA life, Ryan seeks out and finds surrogate forms of family. Neither Affleck nor Freeman are ever as good as when they’re on screen together and they manage to create a chemistry sorely lacking between Affleck and Bridget Moynahan, Ryan’s budding love interest. Affleck’s bumbling interactions with Liev Schreiber’s excellently cast John Clark provide a few more amusing moments, but, consigned to play second fiddle to Ryan’s nerdy heroics, Schreiber’s performance is somewhat wasted. As go these small victories, so goes much of the film. At the end of the day, I was happy in 2002 to have another chance to watch Jack Ryan on the big screen, and I would probably still pay to watch him now. But The Sum of All Fears never fully commits its own ostensible premise — revamping Jack Ryan into a 21st century action hero. Not surprisingly, a new generation of viewers never fully committed to Ryan and the series revamp predictably stalled. Perhaps Ryan was always already destined for the action-hero dustbin in the era of the big-budget comic book adaptation, where a terrestrial super-academic simply can’t compete with the epic grandeur and imaginative scope (not to mention the awesome toys) of someone like Batman. Either way, the fact that I don’t and likely can’t enjoy The Sum of All Fears is never going to make me fully give up my boyish fantasy that brainy academics can actually save the world.
One wonders what it is about these films that make casting directors look to anyone but Russian actors for major Russian characters. While most likely find Sean Connery’s Scots-inflected Russian sub captain in The Hunt for Red October somewhat silly, or at least silly-sounding, Connery nonetheless managed to pull that role off by somehow bringing his trademark, Bond-esque smugness and style to a character similarly intended to have all the answers and tricks up his sleeve. As in Red October, so in The Sum of All Fears, where Irish actor Ciarán Hinds manages to pull off an extremely credible Vladimir Putin-impression while also bringing something of his own gravitas and vulnerability to bear on the image of Russian state apparatus wounded but intransigent in a new world order in which it can no longer play adversary to US political and military might. In fact, much of the inner-circle hand wringing in Sum comes down to how to read this new Russian figurehead and his intentions. Is he a ‘hard liner’ like the Khrushchevs and Brezhnevs before him, or a post-Perestroika Gorbechev or Yeltsin figure, willing to play the ‘reasonable Russian’? Called on to be more than a stock character in a Cold War set piece, Hinds finds a nice balance between an embodiment absolute power and a manager of barely controlled chaos.
Though Affleck and Bridget Moynahan do their best to capture some kind of innocent, budding love between Jack and Kathy, they’re mostly just kind of banal and awkward. I get that they’re meant to approximate the early stages of the relationship, and this involves a certain degree of awkwardness, but there’s very little sign of the intimate familiarity and natural rapport that Harrison Ford was able to generate with Anne Archer in Patriot Games.
What the fuck song is the guy singing at the beginning of the Super Bowl scene? It’s supposed to be the US national anthem, but it ain’t the anthem I know. Clearly, there wasn’t room in the budget to require the rights to the actual lyrics, but given as such, why have a national anthem scene? Having a Super Bowl scene was necessary, as it’s in the novel, but the faux-anthem just made an already contrived-looking scene look even more unrealistic.
The fun thing about films in which the office geeks steal the show is that there is always a coterie of nerdy hangers-on that stay behind at nerd HQ in order to provide moral support for the chosen ‘nerd-in-the-field’ that actually gets a starring role.
Is it me, or does James Cromwell, surely one of his generation’s most presidential-looking actors, bear a frightening resemblance to George H.W. Bush?