The Sum of All Fears holds up as a nailbiting political thriller. Some films are lucky enough (or unlucky enough, as the case may be) to be very much "of the moment." The rebirth of Paramount's Tom Clancy film franchise had most of the earmarks that made the earlier three films successful--the Jack Ryan character previously embodied by Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October and subsequently played by Harrison Ford in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, the roll call of elite supporting actors, and the credible, high-tech espionage intrigue. But this was the moment of Ben Affleck, poised on the brink of superstardom and newly christened as the (ahem) notably younger Jack Ryan. It was also the moment of The West Wing in millions of living rooms. It was also the moment marking post-9/11 popular culture.
For a thriller to roll out at that moment and dare to challenge the competence of U.S. intelligence and leadership--well, here was some risky territory, despite the 9/11 relevance being inadvertant. Scenes of wild-eyed presidential advisors arguing carry nearly as much discomfiting shock value as visions of terrorist devastation. Thus, it's good to be in the competent hands of screenwriter Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco) and director Phil Alden Robinson (Sneakers and Field of Dreams). To be fair, another screenwriter is also credited (Daniel Pyne), and a couple of others are not (Robinson--a screenwriter in his own right--and Akiva Goldsman, who wrote the original draft, based on the 1991 Clancy novel). But all the cooks make a hearty stew from the hastily rejiggered plot elements (for the record, Ryan's now a bachelor, and Arab terrorists are now smooth, corporate-looking neo-Nazis).
Put simply, The Sum of All Fears tells of a terrorist plot to embroil two world powers--the U.S. and Russia--in devastating nuclear war. Ryan, a low-level CIA historian and analyst, finds himself, incrementally, more and more in the thick of the chaos (and a febrile predictor of world events: call him Cassandra). In one of his best performances, Affleck goes with the Clancy flow. Though he would seem a more fitting presence in a frat house rather than a library, barracks, or government building, Affleck doesn't damage the film. He is, of course, simulatneously outclassed and supported by the redoubtable Morgan Freeman, who plays Bill Cabot, the CIA director under the hawkish President Fowler (James Cromwell). Also on deck are the ever-brilliant Liev Schreiber as black-ops agent John Clark, ingenue Bridget Moynahan as love interes Dr. Cathy Muller, and the fully-loaded actorly ensemble of Alan Bates, Ciarán Hinds, Philip Baker Hall, Ron Rifkin, Bruce McGill, Colm Feore, and Josef Sommer.
Though this political suspense-procedural requires substantial suspension of disbelief, the witty script and mature approach keep the film on track. Robinson efficiently establishing personalities and perspectives, sometimes with scenes so economic they're only seconds in length. For those who've never read the novel and thus far avoided plot "spoilers," I won't reveal the course of the unfolding plot (with Clancy, the fun is always in the details). Suffice it to say that The Sum of All Fears is easily less conventional and more sophisticated than the average blow-'em-up blockbuster, but for its complexity, its power remains simple. It's expressed in vulnerability, fear, and heroic response.
One of four new Blu-Ray releases of the Jack Ryan films, The Sum of All Fears comes with a solid AV transfer and all of the previously released DVD extras intact. The picture suffers from a bit of macroblocking in backgrounds and some noticeable edge enhancement and dirt, but if the image never pops, this disc's image easily bests any previous edition, with good detail and an appropriate amount of grain from the film source. Certainly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track put you into the action and well serves the action as well as Jerry Goldsmith's score.
Some substantial special features have been included here, including two audio commentaries. The commentary by director Phil Alden Robinson and cinematographer John Lindley provides a good flow of information about the film's conception and production, with two amiable hosts. But the most interesting bonus feature by far is the fascinating commentary by Robinson and novelist Tom Clancy. By the sound if it, these two sat down the day after the red carpet premiere and Clancy, whose only responsibility on the film was to sign his paycheck, lets loose on the picture.
The track begins with Robinson introducing himself and saying he's honored to join Clancy, who laughs and responds, "I'm Tom Clancy--I wrote the book that they ignored." Clancy's self-serving, show-offy observations demonstrate his amazing (and somewhat outdated) knowledge of the U.S. military and government. There's a strong dose of vehicle tech specs, and Clancy hastens bluntly to point out everything that's wrong, stating more than once, "This is bullshit." His compliments are delivered grudgingly and sometimes backhandedly, but bit by bit, Clancy concedes an awful lot of the film is good, eventually concluding, "Well, on the whole, not a bad job, Phil."
Exploring the disc further, you'll find some vintage documentary material, starting with the nicely assembled "The Making of The Sum of All Fears" (29:55 with "Play All" option), in two parts: "A Cautionary Tale: Casting" (12:55) and "A Cautionary Tale: Production" (17:00). These include the perspectives of Robinson, Lindley, Ben Affleck, Liev Schreiber, screenwriter Daniel Pyne, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, Morgan Freeman, producer Mace Neufeld, Alan Bates, Ciaran Hinds., and the CIA's Chase Brandon.
Next up is "Creating Reality: The Visual Effects of The Sum of All Fears" (27:48 with "Play All" option). Robinson, Lindley, visual effects supervisor Glenn Neufeld, miniature models man Carlyle Livingston II, miniature pyrotechnics man John Cazin, RH visual effects supervisor Derek Spears, aerial coordinator Craig Hosking, and RH CG supervisor for nuclear effects Mike O'Neal talk us through "Carrier Attack" (8:39), "A-4" (6:24), "Hospital" (3:54), "Motorcade" (3:56), and "Helicopter" (4:52). Each gets a detailed overview of the various elements, their creation, and their assembly.
Lastly, we get the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:24), thoughtfully presented in HD. Those who haven't yet taken the plunge for the Jack Ryan films on home video now have especially good reason to do so; even those who have will want to consider upgrading for an image that's considerably sharper.
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