When Amazon’s Jack Ryan series debuts this weekend, John Krasinski will become the fifth actor to play Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst in just under three decades. The new Ryan, pitted against Middle Eastern terrorists, comes four years after Chris Pine’s version faced off wit nefarious Russians in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Lost and nearly forgotten, squarely in the middle of the five portrayals, is Ben Affleck, whose The Sum of All Fears (2002) was a commercial success yet received largely middling reviews and failed to produce a follow-up Ryan adventure with him in the lead.
Taking over for Harrison Ford after Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) — already a shift from Alec Baldwin’s The Hunt for Red October (1990) — Affleck suffered from inevitable comparisons to his predecessors. (One would hope Alden Ehrenreich has him on speed dial.) Dubbed a “pretty boy” and a “frat boy” by critics, Affleck was further deemed “lightweight,” “feeble,” “severely miscast,” and “ineffectual,” while the film’s rebooted timeline with the suddenly twentysomething Ryan in the 21st century further baffled numerous writers. In his Rolling Stone review, Peter Travers said, “Chronology hasn’t been this royally f***** with since Memento,” though the youthful approach wasn’t the filmmakers’ original plan.
According to series producer Mace Neufeld, the production team had Ford and Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger director Phillip Noyce on board, and worked with screenwriters Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show; Donnie Brasco) and Daniel Pyne (Doc Hollywood; Fracture) “for well over a year and a half to try and bring some vitality and update” the source material, which was published in 1991. Unable to “lick that boot” and “serve a movie star of Harrison’s stature,” the production was nearly abandoned when Ford and Noyce left to pursue other projects. Shortly thereafter, Paramount called “saying they’d heard from Ben Affleck’s agent and he was interested in playing Jack Ryan.”
The possibilities afforded by a younger, more mobile, pre-Deputy Director Ryan gave the filmmakers the narrative solutions they sought without A-list lead actor hurdles, placing the fledgling desk jockey alongside CIA Director William Cabot (Morgan Freeman) on a diplomatic mission to meet new Russian President Nemerov (Ciarán Hinds), on whom Ryan is an expert — at least from a research standpoint. The pair also examine the country’s nuclear weapons facility, where they notice that three scientists are missing, setting off a suspenseful race to uncover a plot by neo-Nazi Richard Dressler (Alan Bates) to detonate a refurbished nuke on U.S. soil with an end game of the U.S. and Russia fighting each other, after which his radical group can take control.
With Noyce busy making Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American, director Phil Alden Robinson (Sneakers; Field of Dreams) stepped in and delivered a well-crafted thriller that found a few critical supporters, including Roger Ebert. Though he noted “Ryan’s one-man actions in post-bomb Baltimore are unlikely and way too well-timed,” the late great gave the movie 3.5 stars, praising the filmmakers’ “spellbinding job of cranking up the tension” and creating “a portrait of convincing realism,” as well as the “frightening special effects.” He also called the supporting cast, which includes James Cromwell, Bruce McGill, Philip Baker Hall, Liev Schreiber, and Ron Rifkin, “some of the most convincing character actors in the movies.”
But amidst Ebert’s acclaim, he also pointed out a key factor that impacted the film’s reach. Writing less than nine months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he pined “for the innocent days when a movie like The Sum of All Fears could be enjoyed as a ‘thriller,’” calling it “not a thriller but a confirmer, confirming our fears that the world is headed for disaster.” Returning to the film’s more problematic elements, and looping in the almost purely plot-functional presence of Ryan’s girlfriend Cathy Muller (Bridget Moynahan), he also acknowledged that “without the obligatory Hollywood softeners, audiences might flee the theater in despair,” and that with them “we can walk out smiling, unless we remember that much of Baltimore is radioactive rubble.”
Likewise largely positive toward the film, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle nonetheless confronted the “awkward fact” that The Sum of All Fears “was made for an audience who could watch it at a cozy remove and be vicariously thrilled at the sight of America being attacked” — i.e., “a different audience from the one that’s about to see it.”
Other critics, however, were less kind toward the film’s overlaps with and handling of post-9/11 anxieties. In his Wall Street Journal review, Joe Morgenstern said, “Almost daily, it seems, someone tells us that a terrorist strike with a nuclear device in an American city is all but inevitable. Confronting that horrendous eventuality will be hard enough. The last thing we need is entertainment that evokes the horror and then trivializes it with cheesy heroics. Never has a movie taken on a subject of greater immediacy, or handled it more ineptly.”
Starting with the Cold War uncertainties of The Hunt for Red October, each Jack Ryan film has been a gamble with relevancy as filmmakers attempt to tastefully shepherd a contemporary global concern onscreen while it’s still weighing on viewers’ minds. By Neufeld’s report, production on The Sum of All Fears wrapped in June 2001, and though editing was still taking place in September and tonal styles conceivably could have been altered to reflect the post-9/11 world, the filmmakers “had no intention or desire to change it or anything as a result of the attacks.”
Whatever one’s interpretation of the film’s approach to a terrorist bombing of a major U.S. city and the aftermath, it could have been an even more timely story. The villains in Clancy’s novel are Arab nationalists and were changed because Neufeld and the filmmakers felt they had become a cliché choice. The team also may have been swayed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which spent two years lobbying Paramount to avoid a decision that it claimed could have “a negative impact on the lives of ordinary American Muslims, particularly children.”
But beyond the political ramifications that may have delayed Paramount’s desire for an immediate sequel, Affleck’s subsequent choices didn’t inspire much confidence in a second Ryan adventure with the series’ reigning star. In the wake of The Sum of All Fears, leading man opportunities didn’t dry up, but they came in the form of the critically maligned Daredevil (2003) and box-office flops Gigli (2003), Paycheck (2003), Jersey Girl (2003), Surviving Christmas (2003) and Man About Town (2006). Even after the four-year cold streak, when Affleck returned to his strong suit of supporting performances with Hollywoodland (2006) and made his acclaimed directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), it didn’t lead to him anchoring The Cardinal of the Kremlin or another Ryan tale.
His friend Matt Damon’s success with The Bourne Identity, released two weeks after The Sum of All Fears and a near-equal box-office hit, likewise didn’t help. While the friends were then still considered somewhat of a package deal thanks to frequent onscreen collaborations and jointly running HBO’s Project Greenlight, Damon’s series’ continuation with The Bourne Supremacy (2004) widened the growing chasm between their stardom and sent them on wildly different career trajectories that continue today.
Unfairly lumped into the string of disappointments that briefly derailed Affleck’s career, The Sum of All Fears deserves a better reputation than the casual dismissal it often receives. Sixteen years removed from the hyper-relevancy and reboot-averseness surrounding its release, Robinson’s film can be better appreciated as an intelligent thriller whose themes remain decidedly modern. Considering renewed U.S.-Russian tensions, the story’s nuclear escalation is arguably more potent now than in 2002, while the peacemaking of the final scenes serves as an even greater reminder of what international relations could and should be.