Dad Media Month: The Prescience and Optimism of THE SUM OF ALL FEARS

Phil Alden Robinson’s 2002 adaptation of Tom Clancy’s book The Sum of All Fears was released to mild controversy. The film, released less than a year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, swapped out the novel’s Islamist villains for Nazis, prompting outrage over “political correctness.” That the film’s production was wrapped before the 9/11 attacks seems to have been irrelevant. Haters gonna hate. Villainous Muslim extremists were more “realistic” to some folks at the time than Nazis, for obvious reasons. Nazis, unlike the terrorists who had just killed thousands of Americans, are villains from the past. They’re the faceless goons that Indiana Jones proclaims to hate, then kills with one well-timed gunshot. However, since 9/11 the overwhelming majority of terror attacks in the US have been committed by white right wingers, and the “white nationalist” movement as a whole has been encouraged by the current occupant of the White House. Xenophobic nationalist movements are on the rise around the globe. In retrospect, The Sum of All Fears seems positively prescient. And naive. Endearingly naive, but naive none the less.

The man behind the central villainous plot is Richard Dressler (Alan Bates), an Austrian billionaire and secret Nazi.1 Dressler plays like a stupid person’s idea of a clever person.2 He’s the sort of fellow who gives speeches before small, rich audiences that dance around his base bigotry with a shallow and aristocratic eloquence. I can easily imagine Dressler being a featured speaker at a far right conference alongside Jordan Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos. He would play great with the /pol/ crowd. However, he doesn’t just want to whine on Twitter about UC Berkeley kids taking away his free speech. He wants to set off a nuke in the US, setting the US and Russia against each other in a nuclear showdown, somehow leading to a pan-European ethnostate in the aftermath.

For me, that the nuke is hidden in a cigarette vending machine is one of the only things that feels dated about this evil plan. I mean, who could have foreseen American and Russian leaders being so buddy-buddy in 2018? I can’t hold that against the film.

What does date the film for me, but also buys it a place in my heart, is its optimism. Aside from a single fight scene, the only weapon that our hero Jack Ryan (a babyfaced Ben Affleck) ever wields is his belief that Alexander Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), the new Russian President, is actually an okay guy. Everyone else in the US intelligence community is convinced that he’s a strongman hard-liner who would use chemical weapons on innocent Chechen civilians, but Ryan is all, “Nah. He’s pretty chill. He wouldn’t do that.” Ryan’s main role isn’t to fight the bad guys, but to convince the good (or at least comparatively okay) guys to not fight each other. The big climax of the film isn’t Ben Affleck brawling with a terrorist on a motorboat or something, but him essentially text messaging the two presidents and getting them to chill the hell out and talk. The finale of this film is diplomacy as action cinema, and it’s pretty impressive in that respect.

The ending revelation that Anatoly Grushkov (Michael Byrne), the seemingly merciless ex-KGB advisor to President Nemerov, is the secret “back channel” contact between US and Russian intelligence hammers it home. There are international relationships—even friendships—at play, and the thing that prevents apocalypse isn’t another shell fired, but communication. Not to mention knowledge, which is often devalued in the world of this film and in reality. It occurred to me during this last viewing that both Ryan and Grushkov would probably be considered part of the “Deep States” of their respective countries in our current political climate, if only for their capacity for both.

Given that the film manages to kill off half of Baltimore (and what a sequence that is), it may seem odd to describe The Sum of All Fears as optimistic, but it’s precisely that that makes it so. With a nuclear attack on American soil nudging the world in the direction of total annihilation, at the hand of damned Nazis, the film lives up to its title. Thousands dead, with millions of lives hanging in the balance, all due to the actions of white supremacists? It’s as bad as things get. But Ryan and friends (including a stellar performance by Liev Schreiber as John Clark) manage to pull the second hand on the Doomsday Clock back at least far enough for us to keep on keeping on. Just through knowledge and talking.

And choking. I mean, yeah. John Clark kills all the baddies in the ending montage. We all need some catharsis. They’re Nazis.

Naive? Yeah. But it’s the sort of naiveté I’d like to see more of.

  1. Which must make for a great business card.
  2. All due credit to whoever said this first.