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It Doesn't Add Up to Much

"The Sum of All Fears" fails miserably as a movie, but succeeds as a window into Hollywood's PC soul.

12:00 AM, May 31, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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ONE OF THE LITTLE GAMES I play at the movies is keeping a list of Least Plausible Actors in the Role of a Ph.D. It's a long list.

Some actors play smart effortlessly. Richard Dreyfuss in "Jaws," Russell Crowe in "The Insider," Stellan Skarsgard in "Good Will Hunting"--all credible as academics. Jeff Goldblum may be the Most Plausible Actor in the Role of a Ph.D., with believable turns in "The Fly," "Independence Day," and "Jurassic Park" (he gets extra credit for playing believable smart guys in dumb movies). His "Jurassic Park" co-star Sam Neill was also a fine academic; cast-mate Laura Dern was somewhat less believable--but she wasn't bad enough to make my list.

To make the list, you can't just be implausible, you have to be laughable. Kevin Bacon in "Hollow Man." Nicole Kidman in "The Peacemaker." Jennifer Jason Leigh in "eXistenZ." Nicholas Cage in "The Rock." For many years, the leader board was topped by Elisabeth Shue for her work in "The Saint," where she played not some garden-variety Ph.D., but a nuclear physicist who was on the brink of creating cold fusion. She has withstood many challenges during her five-year reign--most memorably from Denise Richards's bubble-bod nuclear arms inspector in "The World Is Not Enough"--but Shue has finally been topped. There's a new sheriff in town and his name is Ben Affleck.

In "The Sum of All Fears" Affleck plays Jack Ryan, a Marine turned Ph.D. It really, really doesn't work. In his most pensive moments, while he's unraveling the mysteries that will prevent nuclear holocaust, he looks as though he's about to say, "Hey Prez, is it Schlitz'o'clock yet?" And while he's utterly implausible as a Ph.D., he's equally implausible as a former Marine. Or a movie star, for that matter. He's too dim to play smart, too pretty to play tough, and too self-satisfied to play charming. Stepping into a role previously inhabited by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, he lacks both Baldwin's accessibility and Ford's gristle. Thanks, in part, to Affleck's performance, "The Sum of All Fears" is a disaster of a movie.

But it isn't all his fault. "The Sum of All Fears" is, objectively speaking, one of the worst-made big studio films in recent memory. The editing is ham-handed and often incoherent. The direction is suspect. And the production decisions are both mystifying and instructive.

For the uninitiated, "Fears" is the fourth installment of the Jack Ryan franchise adapted from Tom Clancy's best-selling novels. In the book version of "Fears," a group of Middle-Eastern terrorists tries to start a war between Russia and the United States by setting off a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl. The producers were squeamish about the idea of portraying radical Muslims as terrorists, so they turned the bad guys into neo-Nazis (for an excellent description of the decision-making process, read Reihan Salam's piece in Slate). One of the producers, Mace Neufeld, says that complaints from the CAIR crowd started coming into the studio before they even had a script, and Affleck now cavalierly says, "The Arab terrorist thing has been done a million times in the movies." Which is true. Of course, in all of the World War II movies, America is fighting Germany and Japan.

"The Sum of All Fears" is a case study in how Hollywood handles September 11. Now the movie was greenlit and shot long before September 11. But in the shadow of Khobar Towers and the USS Cole and the embassy bombings, Hollywood flinched from showing Arab terrorists at work. The question now is, does September 11 make Hollywood more or less likely to depict terrorists as being Islamist?

So far, the only clues we have come from two television shows, "The West Wing" and "Law & Order" (the production lag is so long in film that the first truly post-September 11 movies won't come out until next Christmas).

This season "The West Wing" opened with an episode about terrorism where the Secret Service suspected that a member of the White House staff might be a terrorist. The Middle Eastern fellow was detained by the Secret Service and questioned at length by the president's chief-of-staff. Naturally, since the show is written and produced by Aaron Sorkin, the episode centered around questions of freedom and racial profiling. The Arab staffer is indignant that he is singled out. Sorkin sets up a conservative straw man in the chief-of-staff who voices concerns about national security, but his arguments are methodically taken apart by the more enlightened members of the cast. And then, at the end of the episode, we find out that the staffer is innocent, that he was just doing his job. The chief-of-staff looks at him sadly (I forget whether or not he apologizes). Lesson learned.