DVD - Image A- Sound B Extras A-
BD - Image B+ Sound A Extras A-
starring Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, James Cromwell, Liev Schreiber
screenplay by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne, based on the novel by Tom Clancy
directed by Phil Alden Robinson
by Walter Chaw The Sum of All Fears is a well-made techno-horror film based on a reasonably well-written (by Tom Clancy standards) techno-horror novel. It's a studio marketing department's worst nightmare post-9/11 (the movie revolving around a pilfered nuclear weapon and a terrorist plot to destabilize the universe) and a critic's wet dream: finally, something meaty to write about in popular film. Or so it would seem, for alas, The Sum of All Fears is just a well-made techno-horror film--in theme and suggestion, it's as moldy and stately as a Le Carré master plot with little comment regarding the state of our world besides "Bad people do bad things despite the best efforts of good people." See, we know that already; while I'm the first to decry the pathological dedication of mainstream pictures to provide easy solutions for life's injustices, The Sum of All Fears is a remarkably ill-timed piece that plays essentially like the sharp twist of a buried knife.
The problems of The Sum of All Fears aren't confined to the accident of its timing (Clancy's follow-up, Debt of Honor, features a commercial jetliner demolishing Congress and will likely never see the inside of a moviehouse): the decision by screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne to pretend that this is not only the first entry in the Jack Ryan film series (it is, in fact, the fourth, after The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger), but also the only Jack Ryan film, proves disastrous as well. It deposits Clancy's über-menschen at the beginning of his career in the CIA at the foot of wizened mentor Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman, in yet another role in which he wet-nurses a marginal starlet), trying to recapture a little of the old Hunt for Red October brio between the cub spook and his grizzled shadow-yogi. Indeed, The Sum of All Fears jettisons the Indiana Jones derring-do brought to the franchise for a two-film tenure by Harrison Ford in favour of the "I'm only convincing when I'm an asshole" everyman of Alec Baldwin (and now Ben Affleck). Sadly for both films, Jack Ryan isn't supposed to be an asshole.
Like so many espionage films in a post-Berlin Wall environment, The Sum of All Fears struggles mightily to find Byzantine ways to demonize the lamented Russians--the most cinematically pleasing of movie bogeys save Nazis. (Unpredictably but amusingly, The Sum of All Fears finds a way to demonize the Russians by way of Nazis.) Free from scrutiny are those of Arab descent, who, though a brilliant Arab man plays a major role in the construction of the bomb in the novel, are reduced in the film to innocent scavengers martyred but not before singing like canaries to the good guys. It is perhaps the most telling change of the film from the book (though living in Denver, I was personally disappointed to see the novel's setting shift from here to Baltimore), pointing to a politically correct squeamishness and cultural underestimation pre-9/11 that no doubt contributed to our stunning vulnerability.
On its own, The Sum of All Fears is workmanlike and proximately eerie. There are images in the film that manage to almost completely obscure the dullness of its screenplay and remoteness of its romantic subplot (a subplot only interesting for fans of Clancy and the Jack Ryan films--groups from which the film consciously distances itself). Ben Affleck is never good as anything other than a jackass, and Morgan Freeman has done so many of these roles that he's not so much acting anymore as much as posing for his inevitable animatronic representation at some nightmare "Hall of Presidents" for actors swallowed by their estimable personas.
While no one stands out as particularly bad or particularly memorable, neither does the film fail to involve. It's a Ken Follett novel mixed with a David Morrell--labyrinthine without cleverness, action-packed without breathlessness. The Sum of All Fears is a clockwork thriller from a squeamish time where our only enemies were already beaten and the sum of all our fears was encapsulated by the possibility that the Russians and the Nazis would somehow lurch briefly to shambling life before being dispelled--again--by the forces of good. Wanting to be an unusually titillating "what if?", The Sum of All Fears is more disturbingly a "when?", an irony-free reminder of losses incurred and losses yet to come rendering its attempts at a rose-colored epilogue something of a blinkered grotesquery. More than anything, this is a picture that aspires for a nihilistic weariness that our new reality has made naïve and conventional. Originally published: May 31, 2002.
by Bill Chambers The Sum of All Fears arrives on DVD in a rare-for-Paramount "Special Collector's Edition." Let's talk about the basics: the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is mostly impressive, disappointing only in its slight darkness and slight softness. Colours are good, but be warned that the image desaturates just after the bomb blast for artistic reasons. As for that pivotal explosion, it's one of the film's few passages to work the Dolby Digital 5.1 track into a frenzy; this is a far cry from Clear and Present Danger's aggressive mix, which was showroom material during the LaserDisc era and still impresses today. Accompanying the film itself are two commentaries, both featuring director Phil Alden Robinson. In the first, he is paired with cinematographer John Lindley and seems overly conscious of alienating his compatriot in narrowing the discussion to lenses and locations. In the second, novelist Tom Clancy replaces Lindley, and the results will set the teeth of film buffs on edge given the loudmouth author's ignorance and disrespect of the sport, even as he illuminates the ins and outs of bureaucracy. An early priceless moment finds Clancy dismissing Bridget Moynahan as another anorexic Hollywood fantasy bimbo, prompting Robinson's hair-tearing response, "I've seen her eat!"
The rest of the bonus material boils down to seven featurettes, two of which are filed under the heading "A Cautionary Tale." "Casting" (12 mins.) includes an exasperated Moynahan bemoaning her character's lack of dialogue, and it ends with the telling comment from Robinson, "I'll be first in line to see the next one." "Production" (17 mins.) recounts with candour Harrison Ford and director Phillip Noyce's departure from the project before delving into the shoot. Here, Robinson insists that the film did not dispense of the source tome's Arab villains out of political correctness. The other section is "Visual Effects," containing five mini-documentaries on the "Carrier Attack" (9 mins.), "A-4" (6 mins.), "Hospital" (4 mins.), "Motorcade" (4 mins.), and "Helicopter" (5 mins.) sequences, the latter three comprising a "trilogy," says vf/x supervisor Glenn Neufeld, of nuclear devastation. These segments have strong production values, though their directors, producers, and editors go uncredited. The Sum of All Fears' theatrical trailer (in full 5.1) finishes off this fine disc. Originally published: October 28, 2002.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount ports their DVD release of The Sum of All Fears over to Blu-ray pretty much intact, though the 2.35:1 transfer is obviously presented at the much higher screen resolution of 1080p. The film looks smart on the format but would no doubt have benefited from a fresh run through the telecine, as mastering techniques have changed dramatically in just a few short years: John Lindley's high-contrast cinematography seesaws between crushed blacks and blown-out whites, while HD brings the now-gratuitous application of edge-enhancement into sharp relief. On the plus side, grain has not been filtered out of the image, which is something you can't say for the other Jack Ryan titles on BD. The audio receives an upgrade, too, with a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track that, even cored, has a lot more authority and depth than the SD platter's DD 5.1 option. All of that disc's supplementary material meanwhile returns in 16x9/480i widescreen, the HiDef theatrical trailer for The Sum of All Fears excepted. Originally published: July 28, 2008.