Between 1990 and 2002, Paramount Pictures and producer Mace Neufeld adapted four of the late Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels.
The first three Jack Ryan films were released within a span of four years and did fairly well at the box office. Audiences liked the Alec Baldwin-Harrison Ford incarnations of Clancy’s stalwart protagonist, a CIA analyst who is devoted to his family and his country.
Unfortunately for the studio, Clancy was unhappy about how screenwriters treated his novels. He disliked the changes made to the Jack Ryan chronology in 1992’s "Patriot Games" and disowned the movie.
Even when Paramount named Clancy as executive producer of "The Sum of All Fears," he still wasn’t thrilled with director Phil Alden Robinson’s take on his 1991 novel about a nuclear attack on the U.S. by foreign terrorists.
Did Clancy have it right when he critiqued the film by referring to himself in the DVD/Blu-ray commentary as "the guy "who wrote the book they ignored"?
"The Sum of All Fears" begins with a flashback to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Israel is under attack by several of its Arab neighbors, including Syria. Surprised and outnumbered, the Israeli Defense Forces are being pushed back on nearly every front, and on the third day of battle, a single nuclear-armed A-4 Skyhawk goes aloft on patrol over enemy territory.
Unfortunately, the A-4 strays too close to a Syrian surface-to-air missile battery and is shot down over the disputed Golan Heights. The pilot is killed and the nuclear bomb ends up buried in the desert sands. There it lies, forgotten and undisturbed.
So far, screenwriters Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne are on the same page as Clancy. But where the novelist’s doorstop of a book was set in a slightly different version of 1991 the movie takes place in a fictionalized 2002.
As in the novel, the President of the United States is a man named Bob Fowler (James Cromwell), a post-Cold War commander-in-chief who doesn’t take nuclear war games too seriously.
However, even though its main character is named Jack Ryan and works at the CIA as an analyst, The Sum of All Fears is the least faithful adaptation of a Clancy book.
In this version of the story, Ryan (Ben Affleck) is not the CIA’s Deputy Director of Central Intelligence. Instead, he’s a still-new analyst assigned to the Agency’s Russia desk, where he studies political and military developments in the post-Soviet Kremlin.
He's also dating Dr. Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynahan), a surgical resident at a Baltimore hospital. She's taken with the handsome and charming young guy who she thinks has a boring job as a historian.
Ryan, a former Marine lieutenant with a graduate degree in history, is tasked with writing classified studies of prominent Russian political figures and observing what the Boris Yeltsin-like President Zorkin (Richard Marner) is doing.
This last part of Ryan’s assignment is short-lived; after a televised press conference in which Zorkin appears to be inebriated, the Russian President dies of a heart attack.
The sudden death of Russia’s leader causes consternation in Washington, and CIA Director Bill Cabot (Morgan Freeman) is summoned to give a classified hearing to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Cabot is impressed by young Ryan’s insights into Kremlin politics, especially his assessment that Alexander Nemerov (Ciaran Hinds) is Zorkin’s likely successor. Taking a seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision, Cabot takes Ryan to the briefing.
As the U.S. tries to determine whether Nemerov is a right-wing Russian nationalist intent in restoring the Soviet Empire or a pragmatic centrist, two Syrian junk dealers uncover the lost Israeli nuke. Thinking that it’s an unexploded conventional weapon, the scrap dealers sell it to a man named Olsen (Colm Feore) for $1,000.
These seemingly unconnected events are the keystones to the plot of "The Sum of All Fears." The instability in Russia, U.S. distrust of the Kremlin’s new leader, and Olsen’s affiliation with a group of wealthy Neo-Nazis headed by Austrian industrialist Dressler (Alan Bates).
Dressler, whose father was executed for war crimes after World War II, wants to use Olsen’s nuke as the centerpiece of his plan to create a Fourth Reich.
Viewed purely as a stand-alone action thriller, "The Sum of All Fears" is an above average effort. In spite of a tight budget, director Robinson ("Hackers") delivers an effective post-September 11 cautionary note about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction,
The acting by Ben Affleck, James Cromwell, Morgan Freeman, Liev Schreiber (John Clark), and the others in this ensemble cast is top-notch.
And while certainly not flawless, Attanasio and Pyne's screenplay doesn't try to insult the audience's intelligence by going the James Bond route and having the hero stop the detonation of the bomb and catching the bad guys on his own.
Viewed as a Tom Clancy adaptation, however, one is left to wonder why producer Mace Neufeld couldn't have made this film earlier while Harrison Ford was still interested in the Ryan role. As I have said in earlier reviews of Clancy-based movies, screenwriters have an almost impossible labor when they adapt a thick Clancy novel into a 120 page screenplay.
What makes Clancy's novels compelling to his fans – the large storyline with subplots and secondary characters that are developed further in other novels – doesn’t always translate well to the silver screen. This is true of every Clancy-based film, but especially true of "The Sum of All Fears."
The 2002 DVD and 2008 Blu-ray releases have essentially the same content. They both have two separate audio commentary tracks. The first commentary teams director Phil Alden Robinson with cinematographer John Lindley and delves into the technical aspects of making the movie.
The second audio commentary also features Robinson and novelist Tom Clancy.. Here, Clancy spends much of his time pointing out everything he dislikes about the movie, although on occasion he discusses the details the moviemakers got right.
The DVD’s extra features (which Paramount Home Entertainment carried over to the 2008 Blu-ray) include a documentary on how the movie was developed and several shorter featurettes about the visual effects. The theatrical trailer is also included in both editions.