Published May 30, 2002
One is predisposed in favor The Sum of All Fears, directed by Phil Alden Robinson and based on the Tom Clancy novel, because — compared, at least, with most Hollywood movies on political and military subjects — it treats the CIA, the Pentagon, the uniformed armed forces and even the president and his advisers and cabinet ministers and national security team with reasonable sympathy. I wondered if it was significant that the fictional president, played by James Cromwell, pronounces “nuclear” as “nucular,” just as our real president does. But, having said that he is, nevertheless, not presented to us as a complete fool, you’ve said about all there is to be said for a film whose preposterousness of plot and political naïveté is hardly less than that of the great majority of movies which assume that America is governed by criminal incompetents.
Its central conceit is not unlike that of last year’s Thirteen Days, in which the young and the glamorous and the sexually active must save the world from a bunch of trigger-happy oldsters hell-bent on blowing it up with their absurd nuclear toys. But this “thriller” plot depends on the assumption that a U.S. President would respond to the detonation here of a nuclear weapon of unknown provenance and in terrorist fashion, so as to kill the largest possible number of people, by launching America’s I.C.B.M.s against Russia — and that Russia would invite such an attack by launching tactical missiles against an American aircraft carrier to demonstrate the effectiveness of their weapons. This is just absurd. Even a president who says “nucular” must know what every movie-goer knows, namely that the terrorist bomb could only have been the work of Nazis and racists. As of course it is.
In a nutshell, the Russian president drops dead and his successor is someone that a young CIA analyst happens to have done some research on. The analyst, Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck), has grown younger and sexier and less experienced since his days of fighting mere drug-lords in Colombia or the IRA and is summoned from a bed warmed by his new girlfriend, a doctor called Jackie (Bridget Moynahan), to a congressional intelligence briefing, thence to Russia, and finally to the highest reaches of the government by a kindly presidential aide called William Cabot (Morgan Freeman). There he butts heads with a national security adviser (Philip Baker Hall) who believes the new Russian leader, called Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds) is a “hard-liner,” though Jack, who has researched him, thinks this is a mistake. Guess who’s right.
Meanwhile, some washed-up communist generals are plotting a gas attack on Grozny in Chechnya and an even more mysterious group, led by an Austrian neo-Nazi (Alan Bates), is planning an even more horrific fate for the world. “They said Hitler was crazy,” he says to his little band of devoted followers (one of whom he has murdered in front of the others, just to show them who’s boss and us how evil he is). “But Hitler wasn’t crazy. He was stupid. You don’t fight Russia and America. You get Russia and America to fight each other.” Once you get them to destroy each other, what is left of the world will (he imagines) turn to him and his Nazis to restore “order.”
I’ll just bet that, down in hell, Hitler is slapping his forehead and saying: “Now why didn’t I think of that.”
His nefarious plan is to be furthered with the help of a nuclear bomb which the U.S. had secretly helped the Israelis to build back in the 1960s but which was lost when the Israeli plane that was carrying it was shot down during the Yom Kippur War. Years later it was dug up by some ignorant Arabs and sold to an international arms dealer (Colm Feore), who in turn put it in the hands of the neo-Nazis. The plan, we soon become aware, is to hide the thing in the stadium where the Superbowl is being played, in Baltimore, and detonate it during the game. Meanwhile, Jack Ryan, a reluctant pen-pusher, is being introduced to the world of international intrigue by a proper James Bond type, though without the chicks or the high life, called John Clark (Liev Schreiber). You will probably not be surprised to learn that, through a series of flukes, it becomes Jack’s job to save the world.
There is just one moment during the film when it is possible to think that it could be interesting — I mean interesting as something other than a cultural landmark, like the first person to say the f-word on television or the first glimpse of a female nipple on cable or the Ozzy Osbourne show. It is when Nemerov explains to an aide why it is that he has taken responsibility for the disgruntled generals’ poison gas attack on Grozny. “Now,” he says, “it is better to appear guilty than impotent.” I wondered about that “now.” Has there ever been a time when it has not been better — for a political leader at any rate — to appear guilty than impotent? When has it not been better, in Machiavelli’s terms, to be feared than loved? Why is this uttered as if it were a moment of great profundity?
One would be inclined to let it go if the film had gone on to explore the paradoxes of power in some serious way, but of course the actual reason is that it is about to go on to do exactly the opposite: to give us, that is, the hippie version of power management to set against this brief foray into Realpolitik. For in spite of all appearances power turns out to be all about truth and openness and trust. Just as the president is about to mash his finger down on that nucular button, Ryan commandeers the US-Russian hotline and delivers a little sermonette about how he and Mr Nemerov have to learn to trust each other because “It’s fear of the other guy that built these goddamn bombs in the first place.” Hm, you’re right, thinks Nemerov. I guess I won’t blow the world up today after all.
Oh dear, oh dear. The spirit of John Lennon still stalks abroad in Hollywood, even where Tom Clancy himself has been persuaded to act as executive producer of the movie based on his book. But perhaps he doesn’t mind having his name associated with the classic liberal attitude that all war and, a fortiori, nuclear war, can only be a result of misunderstanding. The implied syllogism there is as follows: Fear built the bombs; therefore if we stop fearing, the bombs will go away. Don’t prepare for war and war will not come. How simple it seems! What if they gave a war and no one came? All you need is love! But as Kipling wrote:
When the Cambrian measures were forming, we were promised perpetual peace
They swore if we gave them our weapons, the wars of the tribes would cease
But when we disarmed, they sold us, and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the gods of the Copybook Headings said: Stick to the devil you know.
The Copybook Headings haven’t been much in vogue in Hollywood in the last 35 years. They are no more so now that an allegedly conservative novelist is being given the full blockbuster treatment.