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Film Review: The Sum of All Fears

The Sum of All Fears (2002; Directed by Phil Alden Robinson)

Cultural commentators, particular those of a liberal bent, are accustomed to look down on the novels of Tom Clancy as paranoid, fabulist hack work. The late Clancy was a Reaganite Republican, a NRA member, and a serial flatterer of the American military, national security and secret state apparatus. For all of the overheated preposterousness and conservative-friendly chest-beating heroism of his espionage fiction, there’s no denying that Clancy was the feverishly hagiographic street poet of what Dwight D. Eisenhower indelibly labelled the military-industrial complex in the period of its ascension to maximum and untouchable prominence and influence in American power politics. His best-selling books could not be called literature and could not really be studied as such, but one might learn more about the imagined mindset of America’s military and intelligence elites from them than from any number of better-written, more critical, more liberal tracts.

Take, for example, the 2002 film version of The Sum of All Fears, the fourth of Clancy’s novels featuring the astute and stalwart national security lifer Jack Ryan to be brought to the big screen. Ben Affleck plays a young Ryan (Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford previously took on the role in novel adaptations, and Chris Pine starred in a recent reboot attempt not based on any published material), a CIA analyst keeping tabs on those pesky post-communist Russians, with their fragile quasi-democratic political system (pre-Putin, let’s recall) and massive arsenal of nuclear weaponry. Ryan is pulled from the office, and from the embrace of his physician girlfriend (Bridget Moynahan), by CIA Director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) after a Boris Yeltsin-esque Russian President keels over and is replaced by the ambiguous Alexander Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds). Ryan is the CIA’s resident Nemerov expert, and his opinion on the new boss of the Russian Federation is sought (Clancy’s novel was set at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991).

Ryan’s involvement in the feeling-out of this important new head of state deepens when a shocking chemical weapon attack mostly wipes out Grozny, the capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where Russia was enmeshed in a dirty conflict with terrorist flare-ups and vicious armed reprisals at the time of the film’s release. In collaboration with field agent badass John Clark (Liev Schreiber), Ryan also begins to unravel a diabolical plot involving a lost Israeli nuke, a South African arms dealer (Colm Feore), a Baltimore dock worker, and a secret far-right conspiracy to pit the American and Russian nuclear arsenals against one another in a radioactive armageddon.

The film departs in many ways from Clancy’s book, not least of which is the conceit of the entire plan to cause a nuclear war being the work of shadow Nazis rather than Arab nationalists, as Clancy had it. One might swap bogeymen all one wishes, the source of the existential threat to America remains external, unwaveringly fanatical, and stubbornly disconnected from the processes of the nation’s far-reaching and active intelligence and espionage operations across the globe. This was later the case in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which the Trojan horse crypto-Nazis of HYDRA had infiltrated American intelligence agencies and were thus to blame for their worst offenses in the last half of the 20th Century (thus absolving American government actions). This approach of attributing global conflicts to the collusion of hidden fascists (“Again with the closet Nazis!” I exclaimed to myself at the close-up reveal of an engraved swastika on a gold watch) is a useful fantasy device that allows the military-political thriller genre that turned Tom Clancy into a lucrative trade-paperback brand to evoke contemporary geopolitics without engaging their thorny root causes and catalyzing factors.

The Sum of All Fears expresses the perspective of the national security belief structure in many cliched ways. While even the real-life CIA is aware enough of the likelihood of America’s overt and covert international power plays carrying unintended negative consequences for the nation (ie. “blowback”), all bad things can be traced to the ineffable “evil” of global adversaries (as opposed to America’s unquestionably “good”) in Clancy’s military intelligence fantasy realm as in the similarly-sourced fantasy realm of conservative hawks. Cold War paranoia is baked so deep into the American intelligence community that it colours opinions of post-Soviet Russia in the media elites and thus in the general populace. American lives are weighted much more heavily than any others: 80% of the population a city of a couple hundred thousand people is wiped out offscreen, but the realization of a likely nuclear attack on Baltimore during a major football game draws dramatic sweeps and cuts of the Real American spectator multitudes about to be killed.

This is not purely a text drawn direct from the fever dreams of warmongering neoconservatives, mind you. At least in Phil Alden Robinson’s perfectly competent cinematic adaptation, the soft power ambitions of neoliberal and old-school conservatives are hegemonic more so than the interventionist belligerence that now dominates the foreign policy orthodoxy of the Republican Party (and which Clancy himself opposed, at least in the case of its application in the war in Iraq). The climactic moment of the film is not an action sequence but a tense diplomatic exchange that strives for mutual understanding and cooperative closeness between opposing powers, and its denouement is the signing of a disarmament treaty.

Indeed, the brilliance of the secret fascist plot to spark nuclear war (which does not seem to have a reasonable endgame for its plotters, to be honest) lies in its reliance on the lingering distrust between the U.S. and Russia military and intelligence leadership, and especially the irresistible assumptions of aggression and snowballing escalation protocols that lead the old antagonists towards a nuclear war that neither remotely desires. The Sum of All Fears, at least in its onscreen iteration, is thus critical of old white men in suits in isolated locations deciding whether or not to unleash a nuclear holocaust on the planet on the mere pretext of not wishing to look weak when compared to the other guy.

That the film contains the outline of a critique of the military-industrial complex’s precarious war-readiness does not make it a progressive peacenik text, mind you. Nor does that make it a sophisticated portrayal of America’s enormously bloated and self-justifying national security infrastructure. Robinson works skillfully around a limited budget scope to make certain that the story takes place in a convincing fantasy of the real world at least. The showpiece nuking of Baltimore is achieved with a few efficient shockwave CG effects and a post-blast cinematographic pallet of pallid greys, sickly greens and yellows, and overexposed lighting suffusing the radioactive fallout through which the driven Ryan quests doggedly after the truth. The young Affleck is more believable as a slack-jawed naïf than as any species of expert, and has more nice moments with Schreiber’s hard-bitten field veteran Clark (future buddy movies never came to fruition, sadly) than he does with the wisely puckish mentor figure which Freeman can summon with nary an effort. Supporting turns of note include Feore’s self-satisfied arms dealer Olson and Hinds’ flat-faced, inscrutable Nemerov.

The Sum of All Fears is ultimately a near-perfect distillation of a furiously idealized version of America’s intelligence and military community before 9/11 (though it was released the summer after the attacks that irreparably scrambled the country’s hearts and minds, the film completed production the summer before). It’s far from perfect as an espionage thriller and deeply deficient as useful foreign policy ideology, but as a document of post-Cold War, pre-War on Terror national security daydreaming, it does its job admirably well.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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  1. February 2, 2016 at 11:22 am

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