The Number One Movie in America: Sum of All Fears
By Sean Collier
March 20, 2020
America cannot decide how it feels about Jack Ryan.
That is, America often kinda likes Jack Ryan. Many of the books about the simply named superspy, written with King-esque regularity by the late Tom Clancy, were bestsellers. Four of the five movies starring someone as Ryan (the actor changes a lot) opened at number one. The “Jack Ryan” TV series ... well, it exists.
But the box-office returns for the square-jawed action star tends to fluctuate. Ryan made his first silver-screen appearance, in the body of Alec Baldwin, in 1990’s “The Hunt for Red October,” which brought in $122 million — good enough for the sixth spot on the year-end chart. Two years later, “Patriot Games” was less successful (despite Harrison Ford taking over), grossing $83 million; it was obliterated at the multiplex by the release of “Batman Returns.”
“Clear and Present Danger” did almost the exact same numbers as “Red October,” the seventh-highest grossing film of a loaded 1994 lineup. The most modern big-screen Ryan film, however, was a flop; despite the solid casting of Chris Pine, quite possibly the Best Chris, in the title role, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” barely cracked $50 million in 2014, debuting in fourth behind “Ride Along.” And “The Nut Job.” And the fourth weekend of “Lone Survivor.”
Sitting somewhere in the middle of all that Ryan content is “The Sum of All Fears,” the sole outing in the role for Ben Affleck. The 2002 film debuted to $31 million and spent two weeks at number one en route to a finish right around $119 million, good for the year’s top-25 list (and landing right in the middle of Jack Ryan grosses).
The fact that it garnered as much attention as it did is somewhat remarkable, considering the names on the marquees in early 2002.
The film was originally tapped for a late-2001 release, but delayed after 9/11; a domestic-attack plot, even one with decidedly Cold War overtones, probably did not need to debut in the last few months of 2001. (The fact that it was released at all was slammed on a younger and more innocent Fox News Channel for months; in retrospect, that controversy seems to have been more smoke than fire.)
Delays are never enviable, but this one threw “Sum of All Fears” into a battle royale. Affleck’s Ryan arrived at the cinema just two weeks after the second Star Wars prequel — and only four weeks after Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man.” The fact that “Attack of the Clones” would only hold onto the top spot for two weeks would’ve been unthinkable until ... well, until “Attack of the Clones” came out. Suffice to say that Paramount probably wasn’t counting on a first-place finish for “Sum of All Fears.”
The movie, directed by “Field of Dreams” helmer Phil Alden Robinson, feels a bit antiquated, with more ’90s hallmarks than 21st-century touches. Ryan, a low-level analyst with an advanced understanding of Russian maneuvering, is thrust into the limelight when an unexpected power shift occurs in the Kremlin. He skips off to Moscow with the CIA director (a pleasantly dry Morgan Freeman) and tries to maintain a relationship, in the movie’s weakest thread, with a Baltimore doctor (Bridget Moynahan). Meanwhile, a cabal of global malcontents has acquired a nuclear weapon, and hopes to use it to provoke a cataclysmic showdown between East and West.
It’s an action film with very little action, unless you count running down hallways to get word to the right Joint Chief as action. The massive set piece in the middle of the film is suitably impressive, but for the most part, this is a movie about talking — a Cold War style chess game that had a very easy home in the cinemas of the ’80s and ’90s, but would be mostly left behind in the aughts.
In fact, it would be left behind sooner than the filmmakers might have thought. “The Sum of All Fears” likely would’ve made a few million more had direct competition not arrived two weeks later. “The Bourne Identity” would not only cut into Ryan’s grosses, but it would also shove the international-spycraft genre more firmly into the 21st century.
Oh, and how many people are watching John Krasinski in Amazon Prime’s series?
Who the hell knows? It’s not like Bezos is gonna tell you.
“The Sum of All Fears” is the subject of the the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: Can you be both a courtroom drama and an erotic thriller? Glenn Close says yes!