2002 rewatch: The Sum of All Fears was somehow too late and too early

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Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. This week: EW critics Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich examine The Sum of All Fears, Ben Affleck's Jack Ryan movie. Last week: Al Pacino gets Insomnia. Next week: Discover every single one of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Ben Affleck Movies
Ben Affleck Movies

Everett Collection

LEAH: Darren, I feel like I should start by confessing that movies in this genre — let's call it turn-of-the-millennium Dad Espionage? — were basically my Xanax during the pandemic. Give me an airport-paperback plot and a hard squint from Harrison Ford and I am all in. So even though I'd actually never seen The Sum of All Fears until the Amazon algorithms led me there about a year ago, I was actually looking forward to it in a low-grade way. Come at me, miscast Affleck!

And wow, he does not disappoint. I really like Ben in the right role; his turn as a dirtbag Count in Ridley Scott's medieval rape Rashomon The Last Duel was one of my favorite stealth scene-stealers of last year, a dose of levity with layers (in his performance, if not his hair). And he basically confessed to EW last year that he was terrible in Fears: "I thought my job was to be a cipher, rather than what I later learned, which is that you actually have to take those roles and imbue them with a bunch of stuff that isn't there….I look at those pictures now, and I think, 'I can see how people thought of this person as some callow frat guy who's cavalier.'"

His Jack Ryan does indeed come off like a lot less like a C.I.A. superhero than a Sigma Nu pledge who got pulled off a hard-seltzer run to go save the world from nuclear annihilation. It's almost a feat of physics, how little weight there is to him here: He is a dandelion puff, a Styrofoam packing peanut, a smirk in the wind. But there's a much bigger problem with this movie, which is also a pretty major spoiler: Who thought it was advisable less than a year after 9/11 to make a mainstream action thriller in which a climactic crisis is not actually diverted at the last moment, meaning thousands of innocent people in a football stadium die in part because Jack — a brilliant intelligence analyst and standout Marine, according to Tom Clancy! — turns out to be monumentally bad at communicating facts in an emergency?

DARREN: One amazing quirk in this extremely un-quirky movie is that everyone is great besides Affleck. The President is James Cromwell, the CIA director is Morgan Freeman, the White House Cabinet are all championship That Guys (Philip Baker Hall! Bruce McGill! Jon Beasley!). This was the first big blockbuster role for Ciarán Hinds, who's flat-out amazing as the new Russian head of state. And Liev Schreiber steals all his brief scenes as Black Ops mega John Clark. Sum of All Fears was intended to sexy-youthify the Jack Ryan franchise away from the (generally liked) Harrison Ford movies, but making Affleck's agent such a neophyte weirdly strands him between the movie's poles. He's not as savvy as the American or Russian politicians, who find themselves in a standoff. He's not as cool as Schreiber, who seems to be workshopping his Ray Donovan toughness with some residual Kate & Leopold humor.

I respect your love for this spy subgenre without quite sharing it. Affleck's old Good Will Hunting partner famously starred in another spy movie in summer 2002, which spoke to me much more. (We'll get there in a couple weeks.) But I remember liking Sum of All Fears, and I still respect how much director Phil Alden Robinson tries to embed Clancy's Cold War-era novel into a post-Cold War landscape. True, that landscape shifted unthinkably between between filming and release — but the haze of history makes Sum look like the best spy movie of, let's say, Spring 2001. The screenplay, by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyrne, vaguely re-enacts a Russian presidential changeover from a boozy Yeltsin type to a calculating Putin type. (Hinds' President turns out to be a not-terrible guy, which honors the very distant phase of Putin optimism in the West).

I don't know about you, Leah, but I still find the whole nuke sequence of Sum pretty chilling, even if the atomic aftermath looks rather subdued. (The closing romantic picnic on the White House lawn is… a tad rushed.) All the things that work make me forgive the heroic dandelion puff, and I'd put this movie high in my own Tom Clancy adaptation list — not quite The Hunt for Red October, much better than Shadow Recruit, way less fascist than the videogames. Have I delusionally rewritten Sum of All Fears into a Hinds-Cromwell two-hander? I'm curious, where does this rank in the Leah Greenblatt Dad Espionage canon?

The Sum of All Fears
The Sum of All Fears

Everett Collection

LEAH: Well, first, let's give due credit to Hinds for being an Irishman who somehow learned reams of Russian dialogue phonetically in less than two weeks; he is a one-man Rosetta stone, and I don't know how he did it. (Though my Soviet DNA does not exactly qualify me to say that his accent and execution is legit, it sure sounds that way). I love the Cromwell of it all too, and the fact that Freeman has been holding steady at the silver-lion age of 57, give or take, for what seems like approximately six decades now. For some reason I kept thinking of Schreiber here as sort of a flip on his Manchurian Candidate soldier-bot — infinitely gruff and capable, and going off-piste pretty much whenever he chooses to. Whether there's a world where he could have played Jack Ryan himself and saved Affleck a lot of constipated brow-furrowing, I guess we'll never know. Live and let Liev!

I agree with you that the nuke scene feels both supremely icky and unearned. In my circa-2021 innocence, I was so sure they'd swoop in to save the stadium at the last moment that when the bomb went off, I frankly almost walked away from the movie altogether. I come to Dad Espionage for tidy solutions and the triumph of good, not unnecessary and ill-timed apocalypse. Then, of course, I would not have been rewarded with that incongruous picnic. (Sidenote: It is still somehow hilarious to me that this movie's "romance" is essentially two hours of Bridget Moynihan getting continually cockblocked).

It's interesting you brought up The Bourne Identity (also celebrating a 20th anniversary this month) which for all its white-guy heroics and spy-who-came-in-from-the-cold genre tropes, feels far leaner and fresher than Sum. If anything, it seems to mark a sort of passing of that torch from Strictly Dads to a much broader kind of audience, but also an edgier one. Sum still feels so intrinsically '90s, even a few years past the calendar date; Bourne doesn't. To be fair, though, I haven't read the source material. Was Clancy's novel, released in 1991, even more retrograde on these subjects than I know?

The Sum of All Fears
The Sum of All Fears

Everett Collection

DARREN: The original book was ancient enough to prominently feature East Germany, but some of the villains were America-targeting Middle Eastern radicals. Hard to know what a summer-of-2002 audience would have made of that. The phrase "too soon!" comes to mind — hell, the phrase "too soon!" was practically invented around this time. Instead, Sum's main screen antagonist was rewritten as a Nazi billionaire. "Come on, Nazi bad guys in 2002? How lazy!" is what I remember thinking 20 years ago. Sadly, Sum's well-funded right-wing extremists look more realistic every day.

It's funny how history turns, and how it turns back. Sum did fine financially but felt forgotten a day later. The same weekend saw the wide release of the blaxploitation-flavored satire Undercover Brother, which earned less at the weekend box office than weeks 3 and 5 Star Wars and Spider-Man. But Brother also looks rather prescient in its own over-the-top way, with a villain who wants "the White House to stay white" and a general paranoia (funny but true) about systemic racism. If it came out today it would feel like tomorrow. The same can't be said for Sum, which depicts geopolitical frenzy with a clinical air. Set aside a couple of late (not great) action scenes and it's an important-people-in-important-rooms thriller, full of big climactic Presidential decisions.

Jack Ryan himself has since reappeared twice already, with Chris Pine and John Krasinski both doing their best Callow-Brilliant Young Action Man. Their versions of Tom Clancy's world feel juiced with post-Bourne energy to me, and I appreciate the wonkier elements in this entry. Credit Affleck for sharp hindsight on his performance, and credit the film for surrounding him with a great deal of intrigue. Sum's parts aren't perfect — an old structure, a messy core — but even a faulty explosive can pack a punch.

Read past 2002 rewatches: