Previous films from Clancy's Jack Ryan series focused almost exclusively on Ryan, a lone man fighting for country and family. But with "Sum," Robinson has crafted an ensemble piece with room for more than one hero. The creative decision to parallel the collective experience of 9/11, where we as a nation watched and learned of hundreds of courageous, selfless acts, lends the action an acute sense of immediacy and authenticity. Though film by definition is artifice, "The Sum of All Fears" has both the sting and ring of truth.
Trying to fit "Sum" neatly into the Jack Ryan timeline is going to give continuity buffs and die-hard Clancy fans a fit. From all appearances, this is a prequel to the other Ryan films ("The Hunt for Red October," "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger"), because here Jack is younger (portrayed by Ben Affleck, not Harrison Ford), just starting out at the CIA, and dating the woman he's married to in the other movies. But from a world events view, the timeline is out of synch: past Ryan-Clancy thrillers were clearly set in the '90s; "Sum of All Fears," firmly set in 2002. For many, this time warp will be the movie's biggest mystery and most egregious flaw.
Undoubtedly, "Sum" will work better for those who have not seen or conveniently forgotten the prior Ryan flicks starring Harrison Ford or Alec Baldwin. Affleck, who seems best suited for romantic comedies and low-key dramas, is somewhat out of his depth here. He's simply no action hero: He doesn't look the part nor does he seem terribly comfortable with it. As Ryan, he lacks the mental toughness of Baldwin and the forceful presence of Ford. But because the movie's success does not hinge on Affleck's effectiveness as Ryan, "Sum of All Fears" not only survives, it thrives despite a nondescript lead performance.
No complaints, however, about the rest of the cast. The incomparable Morgan Freeman plays William Cabot, the head of the CIA. Liev Schreiber superbly outshines Affleck as John Clark, a smart, resilient undercover agent. James Cromwell, looking like a cross between Lyndon B. Johnson and both President Bushes, creates a believable portrait of a man facing tough decisions with dire consequences. Ciaran Hinds accomplishes the near impossible, making a Russian president both inscrutable and human. As the wealthy neo-Nazi villain of the movie, Alan Bates stays on the periphery of the action. Although pulling the strings and underwriting the cost of pitting the U.S. and Russia in a "tit for tat" nuclear showdown, Bates's evil mastermind never quite rises above stereotype.
Even stripped-down, when it comes to the techno-thriller, Clancy is the king. "Sum of All Fears" may be missing all of the author's delicious details, but his world view is clearly evident as is his complex story development. The reality of 9-11 makes "Sum" more demanding than summer's usual escapist movie fare. Will audiences be able to suspend disbelief and lose themselves in the complexity of the plot and its horrors with ease? The movie succeeds in providing shocks and surprises, and in building suspense. But now that reality and fantasy have come to mirror each other, can moviegoers see one without being reminded of the other? Or will they want to? S