If “hack work,” as media critic John Berger defines it, “is the result of the market making more insistent demands than the art,” then Hollywood is its international corporate headquarters.
Tom Clancy may not be an artist. But he’s a master craftsman of his own genre of popular fiction. Clancy mines his encyclopedic knowledge of world history and his exhaustively detailed research on the cultures of global politics, fires this raw material in the high adventure of his fictionalized military and espionage missions and crafts it into intricate plots. The finished work is a pop marriage of the novelized back-room intrigues that hum in centers of international power (Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent and John Le Carré’s spy tales come to mind) and the high-action globetrotting of Ian Fleming’s James Bond adventures. It features the cold gleam of the CIA and NSA’s high-tech intelligence apparatus rendered with Clancy’s signature painstaking realism.
The ironic jewel in this setting is an all-American Joe (actually a Jack) whose specialized trade is studying the charged web of international relations. With a doctorate in history, a mind that’s a virtual database of the world’s major political players and his reluctantly executed perilous duties for his country and mankind, CIA analyst Jack Ryan is Clancy’s heroic fictional alter ego — and perhaps America’s.
Ryan’s everyman appeal through his last three films (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) is rooted in American myth, not the impeccably groomed superheroics of Bond or his less sophisticated stateside counterpart, Ethan Hunt of the Mission: Impossible movies. While Bond is an essentially unchanging British gentleman-agent with marvelous skills that fare him well in love and war, Ryan’s a hero of the Protestant work ethic pulled up the ladder of success by the grace of his stainless honesty and valor. He thinks brilliantly on his feet, staying outside the box while stumbling toward the saving of humanity. Avoiding violence (like Gary Cooper’s reluctant sheriff of High Noon), he only guns down the bad guys when it’s the sole right thing to do.
Unlike Harrison Ford (the last actor to incarnate Ryan), new Jack Ben Affleck has never truly filled the mythically large boots of the American western icon. Ford knew Jack. After playing a series of reluctant heroes with boyish hearts of gold, from Han Solo to Indiana Jones (who, like Ryan at one point of his career, led a double life as a college professor and adventurer) through the decent cops, business executives and doctors that led up to Patriot Games (1992), he was made for the role.
Affleck’s American hero résumé starts with Armageddon’s goofily brash oil rigger, A.J. Frost, and ends with flyboy Rafe McCawley, the lead in that romance novel in war-flick drag, Pearl Harbor (2001). Affleck’s youth undercuts Ryan’s character and requires a disastrous rewrite of Clancy’s novel.
If you liked the earlier Jack Ryan movies — or even worse, if you enjoyed reading Clancy’s 900-plus-page book — you’ll be disappointed at the very least in The Sum of All Fears. Screenwriters Paul Attanasio (Sphere, Donnie Brasco) and Daniel Pyne (Any Given Sunday) ransack the pages for a filmable plot, discarding the history, the culture and (ironically for a political thriller) much of the politics and the action. You could call it Clancy lite, but that title would have suited the earlier movies. This is more Clancy for dummies: See villains buy bomb. See clever Jack figure it all out. Watch bomb go boom. Run, Jack! Run!
Attanasio and Pyne age and career-regress Ryan from a family man and deputy director of the CIA to a bachelor junior analyst who manages to bed his model-pretty wife-to-be, Cathy (Bridget Moynahan, Coyote Ugly), now a second-year surgical resident, in three dates. So much for American family values. And so much for an adult love story and a Ryan who managed to somehow preserve his innocence and decency through the storms of global conflict.
Why Affleck? Well, it’s not charisma. Morgan Freeman and Liev Schreiber (in a performance worthy of James Bond) steal the spotlight away from him as soon as they walk on screen. But Affleck brings a bright, shiny, young demographic to the Ryan franchise. And at 30 years old, Paramount may get a decade of sure-thing hits out of him. The guys in marketing win and art loses: It’s The Sum of All Fears.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.