The Sum of All Fears
First of all, you need to know that Ben Affleck now plays young Jack Ryan, present-day hero of Tom Clancy's CIA series. Yes, it's true that there has already been an old Jack Ryan, present-day hero, played by both Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin, but even though this film post-dates all of theirs it's probably best if we just relax and accept Affleck as the young new Ryan. It's that famous suspension-of-disbelief thing, and if you see this film you're going to do a lot of suspending.
Young Jack, as we shall call him, is an analyst at the CIA, where he puts to use his doctoral work profiling current Russian leaders, particularly President Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds) (yes, like the poet; surely a writers' in-joke). However, unbeknownst to everybody, as we say, there is a bizarre little group of unrepentant Neo-Nazis led by wealthy Austrian Herr Dressler (Alan Bates), who seems not to have a first name. His associate discovers and buys an unexploded atomic bomb that was lost in the Negev during the 1973 Yom Kippur war when an Israeli fighter plane was shot down (don't ask). His nefarious plan is to explode the bomb in Baltimore during a Ravens football game attended by U.S. president Fowler (James Cromwell), killing everyone and thereby setting in motion the scenario that the U.S. would blame Russia for the attack, that the two countries would go to war, and that only the Nazis would survive. Now I know the Ravens weren't so good last year, and Baltimore has had some civic scandals, but do they really deserve this kind of end? And is this scenario quite as believable as, say, Groucho Marx playing the Prime Minister of Freedonia in "Duck Soup?" Regretfully we have to say no.
But writers Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne say yes, and in the course of the film's 124 minutes they bring us to the very brink of global disaster as each side blames the other. Is it out of place to ask whatever happened to the big red phone, the hot line between the two presidents, which does not exist in this film? Oh, well. And naturally Jack is the only one smart enough to understand that the Russians didn't do it, and that it would be what you might call a big mistake to destroy the world just because you think they did; but for reasons that have to do with making a film last a full two hours he is unable to communicate this to the President, due in part to the fact that his mentor and boss William Cabot, director of the CIA (the always-serene Morgan Freeman), now lies dead in the Baltimore stadium.
This is a film that is easy to lay waste to, and I am not the only critic happy to join the crowd, but there are some very good and interesting things in it. First of all there is the direction by Phil Alden Robinson, best known for "Field of Dreams." He has grasped the ways in which we don't know essential information and flail around trying to learn it. He has shot the film with an increasingly edgy kinetic rhythm, as the tension builds and the apocalypse comes closer. His framing, lighting and cutting are superb. Second, Affleck holds his own and remains reasonably secure in the role of the na´ve analyst thrust into an earth-shattering conflict, in which the unbelievable must be treated as fact. Third, Morgan Freeman brings some badly-needed wit and irony to a film that cries out desperately for a grownup to supervise the boys.
In sum, as Mr. Clancy might say, we have an absolutely unbelievable story pushed to the limit, but shot so as to hide at least some of the inanities, with decent acting and even a few powerful moments. I've seen worse.