With his blank eyes and soft features, Affleck has none of the swaggering gravitas of his predecessors in the Ryan role, Alec Baldwin (in 1990's The Hunt for Red October) and Harrison Ford (who took over for 1992's Patriot Games and 1994's Clear and Present Danger). Affleck's Jack Ryan looks ready to throw down at a frat-house kegger, not stare down a nuke. When Affleck keeps getting work, the terrorists have won.
That director Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, Sneakers) surrounds Affleck with older, better actors who go wasted -- Morgan Freeman as Bill Cabot, Ryan's would-be mentor; James Cromwell as an obtuse and petulant president; Philip Baker Hall as an impatient defense secretary -- does him no favors. Nor does the presence of Liev Schreiber as a CIA operative whose nerve and charisma render Ryan impotent during their few scenes together.
Tom Clancy acolytes will stare at the screen in confusion. Screenwriters Paul Attanasio (responsible for far better films, among them Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco) and Daniel Pyne have gutted Clancy's 1991 novel, eliminating major characters and key plot points. The villains are now neo-Nazis, not Arabs, and Ryan is no longer suspected of cheating on his wife, because here he has no wife: Dr. Cathy Muller Ryan, played by Anne Archer in Games and Danger, is now just Dr. Cathy Muller, Jack's girlfriend, which suggests a time warp of some kind. The Sum of All Fears takes place in the present, but its action predates that of the previous Ryan movies.
Such retooling is about as comprehensible as the plot. In 1973, those clumsy Israelis lose a nuke in the desert; 29 years later, it's recovered by Arabs looking for scrap metal, who then sell it to Nazis (led by Alan Bates) planning to pit the United States against Russia. The Nazis figure that if they can pin a nuclear explosion at the Super Bowl (where Florida's playing Chicago, suggesting this is an alternate universe) on the Russians, the two superpowers will blow each other up, leaving plenty of nuclear-winter wonderland to claim as Third Reich territory. (Hitler's spawn apparently don't mind such nuisances as radiation.) The story alone could force you to scratch a hole in your head.
Robinson is clearly dying to reveal the carnage of the Super Bowl explosion, but he's also aware that doing so would open fresh wounds in the collective consciousness. So he hints at the devastation: a tidal wave of countryside destruction (from which Ryan emerges with only scant scrapes), a few scenes in a hospital, a neighborhood on fire. We're left to fill in the blanks with fresh memories of real-life destruction, and the result is alienating. We're no longer in the movie but out of the theater, hoping life doesn't again imitate art, base as it is.