The Sum of All Fears shows how a movie with a ton of dumb stuff happening in it can also have profound moments

Tonight, for the first time, I watched the 2002 Morgan Freeman / Ben Affleck spy thriller movie, The Sum of All Fears, based on Tom Clancy’s 1991 novel of the same name. Not knowing anything about the plot, I was hoping to be swept up into a smart, twisty espionage movie with plausible crises, fast-paced action, suspense, and some strong characters with good chemistry between them.

But the movie blew up my suspension of disbelief in its opening scene, because the series of events it presented were, just frankly, impossible. It opens on an Israeli military air base on October 9, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War (or October War or Ramadan War depending on which side you supported). The Egyptian and Syrian forces have made strong gains after their surprise coordinated attack, and Israel decides to launch a fighter jet with a single tactical nuke on board. The pilot’s mission is to stay airborne and wait for orders. If the Israeli ground troops were to start to be completely overrun, the order will be given to him to nuke some enemy target.

As these kinds of movies go, so far so good. I’m pretty sure that in real life no Israeli plane actually took off with a nuke on board. It’s possible Clancy was using artistic license to expand on news reports that then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir did elevate the nuclear alert level, but I’ve yet to read any news stories of an Israeli fighter jet zipping around in Syrian or Egyptian airspace with a nuke in its belly. But for a fictional story, I can work with an alternative possible history imagining what might have happened if something important had gone differently than it did in reality.

Story premise: Israel misplaces a nuke in its own backyard but decides to do nothing to find it for 30 years. Whoops.

But the opening scene went off the rails in the first few minutes. You see, the brave Israeli fighter jet pilot – presumably the best pilot in one of the world’s most highly regarded air forces – is flying low over desert terrain that looks a lot like the Sinai, and he does something no pilot would never do. He has a photo of his wife and child perched on the instrument panel. He hits a bit of turbulence, and the photo falls from where he can see it into a hard to reach space near the floor of the cockpit. So what does this world class fighter pilot, who is flying low to the ground to avoid radar and is carrying a live nuke, decide to do? He starts reaching down with one hand and stretching uncomfortably to try to grab the fallen photo, and when he frustratingly can’t get a grip on it, he stops looking out the front windshield, and leans down awkwardly to try to find the photo. When he sits back up straight again, he screams because – forehead slap – he’s about to crash into a hill. Which he does. The plane, the bomb, and the pilot all get hurled into the sand. The pilot is dead and the plane smashed to bits. The nuke is dented here and there but remains intact, unexploded, and half-buried in the desert sand.

Next the screen tells us it’s 29 years later., and we see two Arab men who apparently make some money by looking for discarded military equipment and ordinance from previous wars, collecting a bunch of it, and then selling it to different black market buyers who find some of it useful. They stumble upon the buried Israeli nuke. They don’t know it’s a nuke – but it’s clearly a bomb of some sort. They dig it up, get it on their truck, and end up selling it to some European creep who turns out to be part of a neo-Nazi plot that seeks to acquire a nuke and other WMDs.

So that’s the opening premise. The Israelis secretly put a pilot in the air with a tactical nuke as a last ditch deterrent in case the war on the ground looked like it was about to turn into a total collapse for Israel. Is that much a plausible premise? I mean, okay, why not, you gotta be willing to suspend some disbelief and not get hung up on questions like whether sending up a plane that could crash, be shot down, or even be captured with a single nuke in its hold would be the way that an Israeli head of state would go about making the threat of a nuclear strike known to their enemies.

But we’re supposed to believe the plane crashes because the pilot pulled an Albert Brooks move from Defending Your Life? No way.

And then what happens? The Israeli army has now lost a nuke, somewhere in the desert, possibly still in Israeli controlled territory, or possibly Egyptian or Syrian territory. So what do the Israelis do? They leave it, lost somewhere in the sand. They don’t go get it. They just shrug and go, “welp, heh heh, sorry to all of our allies – especially you, America – but we kind of lost one of our nukes in the desert and we can’t think of any way to organize a mission to retrieve it. Oh, and just to clarify, we aren’t saying we have nuclear weapons. But if we do have them, well, we have them minus one that we are supposed to have. Which we’re not going to bother to try to find and get back. Shalom.”

This is the Israelis, mind you. Not exactly the Keystone Cops of military action. The army that busted into Entebbe airport in Uganda in order to rescue Israeli hostages. They are supposed to be, like, “Yeah, we can’t go looking in a stretch of barely populated desert nearby for a missing nuke.”

Next comes some Hollywood laziness. Because we are told that the two Arab scavengers who found the nuke live in the Golan. Take a look at the landscape of where the Israeli fighter pilot crashes his jet, and where the wreckage of the plane has come to rest:

This is the Golan Heights? It looks like the Sinai desert. Seriously, I’m waiting for some modern day cinematic Moses to walk into the scene of the wreckage and take a close up look at the burning mush that is this shark-jumping movie premise. I’m half-expecting Mark Watney to amble along in his EVA suit. Just in case you’re not familiar with what the Golan looks like, here’s a pic from the Lonely Planet guide to visiting the Golan:

Also, and pay close attention here, if the Israelis lost one of their nukes in 1973 in the Golan, then that means they lost it in territory they controlled and then annexed a few years later. They wouldn’t even need to do a Mission Impossible style nuke retrieval in hostile enemy territory commando op. They would just need to look around for it while they were actively building new Israeli neighborhoods and communities in the Golan.

Meanwhile, back in the Sinai – er, I mean – the Golan…

…this guy, with a sweat-stained back but an immaculately spotless keffiyeh, finds the loose nuke…

Actor Stefan Kalifa played this small part, and he is most definitely not to blame for the absurdity of the scene. BTW, he’s had a long and accomplished career – check it out here.

But we’re not done with the stupid in this film.

There’s the part where our CIA analyst and Russia expert, played by Ben Affleck, has crucial intel that could save tens of millions of lives, and he needs to get that info to his boss, Cabot, the head of the CIA (Morgan Freeman). So he tries to call him on his cell. But the CIA director is at an NFL game in Baltimore with the President (played by James Cromwell a.k.a. Farmer Hoggett of “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do” fame in Babe).

His phone keeps ringing and he doesn’t hear it over the screaming fans, until he finally does, and he answers it, but isn’t able to hear what Agent Ryan is trying to tell him.

So he hangs up and sits back down to watch more of the game. Until the phone rings again, and he’s finally able to hear from Ryan that there’s a nuke about to explode in Baltimore. Ruh roh. Too bad the head of the CIA was so hard to reach in the middle what the movie has so far presented as a possible World War 3 simmering crisis with Russia – I mean, football is sacred in America, so I can understand why there would be no way to reach him for hours. Also, too bad that the CIA’s top Russia analyst wouldn’t have had anyone else he could reach to convey desperate national emergency intel to if the director’s phone wasn’t working.

Anyway, Director Cabot manages to hustle President Fowler / Farmer Hoggett out of harm’s way just in time, but – and I gotta say I didn’t expect this in a 2002 released Hollywood summer blockbuster, less than a year after 9/11 – the nuke explodes and glasses a big part of Baltimore. So when this movie came out, a still-traumatized America got to see this:

Richard Dressler, played by the late Alan Bates, and seeming quite creepy and convincing as the mastermind behind the terrorist plot to start World War 3.

Now it’s up to Ben Affleck to convince President I-Can’t-Help-But-See-the–Farmer-from-Babe that it wasn’t Russian president Nemerov (played by the gifted Irish-born actor, Ciarán Hinds) who ordered the nuking of Baltimore.

And who are these horrible people who managed to buy the lost Israeli tactical nuke from nomadic Arabs, smuggle it into Baltimore, and detonate it killing tens of thousands? They are a loose cabal of European white nationalists. Neo-Nazis who think they can take over the world by correcting the one major strategic blunder that Hitler made: going to war against Russia and the US at the same time. This time, the plan is to trick the Americans and the Russians into obliterating each other first, and then the neo-Nazis will make their power grab on the global stage, heralding the return of fascism.

So, we’re back to Hollywood’s classic baddies – Nazis or people who want to be Nazis. Don’t get me wrong – I’m good with that. Nazis were and are the bad guys. Always. But because of the various layers of stupid in this movie, my first reaction to finding out the baddies were nouveau-nazis was that it just seemed lazy. And that’s when there was a scene in which the movie went from farcical to frightening, from predictable to prescient.

We see the leader of the Nazi baddies, Mr. Dressler, recording a video of himself, perhaps to share with the world in the coming days since his dastardly terrorist plot to get the US and Russia firing nukes at each other is on the verge of success. Here’s what he says:

Most people believe the 20th century was defined by the death struggle between communism and capitalism, and that fascism was but a hiccup.

Today we know better. Communism was a fools errand. The followers of Marx: gone from this earth, but the followers of Hitler abound and thrive.

Hitler, however, had one great disadvantage: he lived in a time when fascism, like a virus – like the AIDS virus – needed a strong host in order to spread. Germany was that host. But strong as it was, Germany could not prevail. The world was too big.

Fortunately, the world has changed. Global communications, cable TV, the internet. Today the world is smaller. And the virus does not need a strong host in order to spread. This virus … is airborne.

One more thing: let no man call us crazy. They called Hitler crazy, but Hitler wasn’t crazy. He was stupid. You don’t fight Russia and America. You get Russia and America to fight each other. And destroy each other.

Richard Dressler inThe Sum of All Fears

I felt chills watching this scene. It basically predicted the rise of white nationalism via social media and mass-media manipulation. And it did it in 2002. The virus / strong host analogy is intensely thought provoking. Dresser’s speech is masterfully crafted. No words are wasted. The message is precise, and much of it reads like it was ripped out of the playbook of today’s white nationalist plotters.

So, once again I bear witness to what a long ago film class instructor of mine at Northwestern University taught us. Even a mediocre or downright bad movie can have brilliant moments. For me, the sum of the Sum of All Fears doesn’t add up to a lot as a spy thriller. Except for that one terrifying, shocking scene explaining how the 21st century mass-communications landscape can be exploited by neo-Nazis and white nationalists to recruit, connect, disrupt, deceive, discredit, destroy, and attempt to dominate. The world has changed. Today the world is smaller.

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