Let me start off the discussion of this film with a quick note regarding spoilers. In this initial post I am going to try very hard to keep from revealing any surprises in the film. This includes a very pivotal event that probably should be considered a spoiler, but which has been pretty openly revealed in the reviews and marketing of the film. As is typical with Tom Clancy's stories, though, there is a lot of complexity here which will make it hard to discuss the film in much depth without revealing details. Those that haven't seen the film (or read the book) yet may want to use caution when following this thread.
The complexity and technical detail that is typical in Tom Clancy's stories have allowed them to translate into a series of very thoughtful films that tend to require a lot more thought and concentration than the typical action thriller. This is very true once again with "Sum of All Fears", which I found to be among the best of the Clancy adaptations to date.
It is difficult to gauge reaction to the movie without taking into account the events of last September. Had this film come out last summer instead of this one, I suspect that it would have seemed much less resonant and even quite a bit more far fetched. In the post-9/11 world, the film seems very relevant. Even with its shadows of real world events, though, the film still manages to entertain and excite. There is a very solid mix of suspense, appealing characters, and even humor. To be honest, I actually found it rather reassuring that I was still able to be entertained by this kind of story.
In his first theatrical film since "Sneakers" in 1992, director Phil Alden Robinson manages to bring the same strong mix of suspense, emotion, and even some subtle comedy that he brought to that earlier film. The result is a film that feels more human and less mechanical than the last two Phillip Noyce directed Clancy adaptations. I really wish that Robinson (who also directed "Field of Dreams") worked more frequently.
I've had mixed reactions to Ben Affleck's past performances, so I had some reservations about whether or not he would really be up to taking over the role of Jack Ryan. This film's version of the character is considerably younger and much less experienced than the versions played by Alec Baldwin (in "Hunt for Red October") and Harrison Ford (in "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger"). As a result, Affleck's basically cocky, overly self-assured attitude that can sometimes be off-putting in films served the character really well here. It is a different take on the character that leaves it hard to imagine him evolving into Baldwin or Ford's version, but he fits in well in this film.
While Affleck's Ryan is definitely the central hero, this film does have an unusually large number of segments where his character isn't present at all or is just an observer. In some ways, this shifts Affleck's performance more towards being a prominent character-actor performance in an ensemble than really being a star performance in a summer action film. That might actually be the right niche for him.
As the CIA director who takes Ryan under his wing, Morgan Freeman is once again playing the type of worldly, experienced father-figure that he frequently plays, but always seems to play very well. This role certainly isn't a major stretch for him but, as is typical for Freeman, he is always compelling. A subplot involving Ryan's budding romance with a young medical student really serves primarily to help humanize Freeman's character through the interest he shows in this component of Ryan's life.
I feel that the real standout performance in this film is James Cromwell's portrayal of the US president. He creates one of the most human presidents that I have ever seen in a film. It is wonderful to see him not just agonizing over the need to make decisions with worldwide consequences, but also showing >frustration< at his own uncertainties. It is fascinating to see a film that depicts a president and his cabinet literally getting into impassioned shouting matches when stress and tension get high. I find that much more believable than the usual cool, calm discussions that we typically see in films. Cromwell shows us a president that clearly is a good man, but also prone to such human reactions as anger, confusion and stubbornness.
The rest of the cast includes many talented character actors, all of whom help to bring the film to life. Such actors as Liev Shreiber, Alan Bates, Philip Baker Hall, and Bruce McGill lend a great deal of skillful support to this film.
If the film has one key weakness, it is that its villains are not extremely well defined and, on occasion, make some stupid mistakes that strain credibility. In light of world events since they finished filming this last summer, the filmmakers may be relieved that the Arab terrorists of Clancy's novel were replaced in the film with European neo-Nazis. I'm undecided, though, about whether the original villains would have worked better in the context of the film.
These minor complaints aside, this is an extremely compelling and thought-provoking film that ranks right up there with "The Hunt For Red October" among the Clancy adaptations. I recommend it very highly.