The Sum of All Fears (2002)
PG-13 and it really feels like PG-13. Lots of people die. That's a really weird to say, but it's about to get weirder. So many people die simultaneously that it has that effect of being a statistic. There's some sad deaths, but it is more incomprehensible. Similarly, with most PG-13 Jack Ryan entries, there's mild language and some action movie violence. Also, the movie works really hard to play up the Ben Affleck sex symbol element. There's some implied premarital sex. It's all very PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Phil Alden Robinson
I finally did it! I was able to watch all of the Jack Ryan blu-ray box set. It's been sitting on my coffee table for almost a year, daring me to watch it. But I can finally put it on my shelf. That's such a happy moment for me, when it joins the collection. Sure, there's also something disappointing about that moment. The dopamines associated with purchasing it are long gone. The only way that the Jack Ryan box set will probably bring me more joy is if someone sees it on the shelf and wants to watch it with me. I don't know if that's going to happen.
Post 9/11 was a weird time. There were a handful of movies that were clearly in production before the tragedy of the World Trade Center that ended up evoking a haunting sense of vulnerability. I know that The Siege with Denzel Washington came out in 1998, but post-9/11, I remember watching that movie a whole bunch. The same can be said for The Sum of All Fears. A lot of America didn't want movies like that. It was too raw and too fresh. But these movies provided commentary, albeit in a setting that was mostly supposed to be entertaining, about who we were after a major attack. The Siege, from what I remember, perhaps stronger in its criticism of fear in the wake of tragedy, but The Sum of All Fears with its 2002 release date was a movie that kind of starts a dialogue without really finishing it.
When the nuclear device goes off, it kind of changes what we think of in terms of political thrillers. I don't know if the movie is structured perfectly in terms of narrative, but sticking this major tragedy in the latter half of the movie makes for an interesting story. When something crazy happens in movies like these, I always expect it to happen in the first few minutes of the movie. There's an expectation of formula that is messed with when a movie decides to throw the major tragedy halfway through the movie. It becomes something important. If looking at a plot mountain, that disaster at the beginning of a Bond movie or something similar is the inciting incident. Instead, with Jack Ryan, it's the role of analyst that changes how we view these movies.
Jack Ryan is an odd beast, I suppose. In Tom Clancy's world, we have John Clark. John Clark should be the protagonist of these movies. He's a right proper action hero super spy. He's the guy who goes on all these missions and is sent in when things go poorly. But Jack Ryan looks at data. There's nothing really sexy about looking at data. He's a guy who is talking with a sounding board of other analysts who don't see what he sees. It can't be a rewarding job to be one of these other analysts because they are there to have Jack Ryan talk and make them seem ignorant of what's going on. Look at how Jack is introduced in this movie. He's the guy showing the room full of people that he knows his stuff better than his peers.
That conversation means that we are only let in on fragments of what the story is actually about. Instead of having a spaceship eat a space capsule a 'la You Only Live Twice, Jack has to look at what might be happening. The satisfying moment is when he gets a theory that will ultimately be mostly right. It can't be all right because there has to be an epiphany moment later in the movie. That epiphany moment is also remarkably satisfying. But Jack Ryan kind of allows for the major disaster to happen in the middle of the movie. I haven't read the Tom Clancy novels, so I don't know how the source material plays with the nuclear explosion in Baltimore. But most movies don't let it get that far. In Man of Steel, Metropolis is destroyed as an afterthought. I know that Batman v Superman tried making a bigger moment out of that, but I think that's because of fan outrage. But Baltimore is the failure of the protagonist. It's not Jack's fault, really. Because he is an analyst, the information trickles in so slowly until it is impossible for Jack to stop the event.
I have to applaud the stakes changing that The Sum of All Fears actually allows. I don't know how it is possible to live in Tom Clancy's America. Again, I'm not an expert. But the first few movies seem like there would be a business-as-usual result to his world. I also don't know how interconnected his books are. In my head, it's all one world. Like, the Rainbow Six team probably can and have met Jack Ryan. Does this mean that there is no more Baltimore in the world of Tom Clancy? That's kind of cool / really dark and I probably shouldn't be writing with such enthusiasm about the end of Baltimore, Maryland.
But that twist is gutsier than a lot of people give it credit for. The movie becomes a very different film after that moment. I don't want to say that Jack Ryan becomes another character because he doesn't. The Jack Ryan of The Sum of All Fears is very similar to the Jack Ryan of The Hunt for the Red October. His intimate knowledge of a Russian leader causes him to clash with his superiors in an attempt to save the world from complete ruin. (Oh geez, I just had the epiphany that The Sum of All Fears is a cut and paste over The Hunt for the Red October and that I need to stop being so nice to this movie.) But the movie becomes about Jack stopping a tragedy and getting the bad guys to stopping the end of the world. I love that shift. The movie teases the fact that Jack doesn't know how to schmooze with the political bigwigs from the beginning, but then it becomes about life and death? That's pretty nifty.
I know why they keep rebooting these movies, but I don't like it. There's something wildly uncomfortable about how young they make Jack Ryan in these movies. Tom Clancy movies are for old men. I'm sorry. Everyone else is allowed to like them, but the target audience is old folks. I'm sure that Paramount hates that. Old men don't spend all the dollars. I don't hate Ben Affleck. I never really have. As a human being, he might not be amazing based on tabloid nonsense. But the guy is way more talented than people give him credit for. It's just such a studio choice to make Ben Affleck Jack Ryan. He does a perfectly fine job with it. He's a pretty good actor and, as the movie ACTUALLY STATES, he's very handsome. But I don't know if Jack's mythology is so tight that we needed to have an origin story for the character. Think about it. From this point on, Jack Ryan gets younger and younger. We always have to have that moment where Jack is pulled out of his comfort zone to do something that shouldn't be his job. It used to be about this old guy who decades ago was a Marine. Now, it's a guy who recently was a Marine and now has to do some actual wetwork to save the day.
There is one advantage. By the time that Clear and Present Danger came out, Jack had been on enough adventures where being thrown into the mess was just par for the course. The second season of the TV show also has that issue. He's also the Deputy Director of the CIA. I guess there's nowhere else for the character to go, so it makes sense for him to be a guy who doesn't even know how to dress for the job. It's just that the movies make him even younger with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The Sum of All Fears didn't do great at the box office because of the collective experience of 9/11. But again, there's that studio element that's just hovering over the movie. If something didn't work, there's a need to reboot it again. Clear and Present Danger definitely feels like the last true Jack Ryan film. The TV show is doing some good stuff, but in a way that John Krasinski's Jack Ryan seems like a wholly different person than Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan.
But this movie is still pretty good. I really enjoy this one. I'm ashamed to say, but after binging all of these movies recently, I might say that I'd rewatch The Sum of All Fears out of all of them. It's not the best one. But it is possibly the most entertaining and the most gutsy of the group. I know that people will preach Hunt for the Red October all day, but I like the balance that this one strikes. The biggest issue it has is that it has a legacy hanging over it that people can't really ignore. I bet if it looked less early 2000s, this movie would have more legs today. There's good stuff going there.
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Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.