Revenge of the nerds

Wonk saves the world via PalmPilot and e-mail.


directed by Phil Alden Robinson with Ben Affleck, Morgan Freeman, Liev Schreiber, and Alan Bates opens May 31 at Meridian, Oak Tree, Varsity, and others

JACK RYAN soldiers on. Yet while Tom Clancy's 1991 novel has been retrofitted to present duty, it still seems oddly dated. On the one hand, you've got the terribly topical depiction of domestic terrorism: An A-bomb blows up the Super Bowl and half of Baltimore. On the other, Sum's main villain has undergone an incongruous p.c. makeover: from Clancy's original Arab evildoer to a white Austrian fascist.

The book's old premise turns out to have been creepily prophetic, but the movie's blaming neo-Nazis is impossibly atavistic. The recent Hollywood convention that a mugger must be white, not black, achieves a kind of ridiculous doublethink when crimes are global in scale. This tendency becomes even more ludicrous when a right-wing international conspiracy emerges behind the attack. Instead of a specific, understandable grievance—Islamic fundamentalists vs. the West—we're given this vague, nefarious cabal reeking of James Bond's old nemesis SPECTRE. We know they're irredeemably evil because they savor Continental luxury, wear French cuffs, and listen to opera—then there's the leader, Alan Bates, looking like a refugee from Dr. Evil's boardroom table. (Where's the white cat?)

Sum also reflects this dissonance when the explosion finally occurs. It wants to show us the horror (mushroom cloud, shock wave, etc.) but not that much horror. In a sequence surely re-edited after Sept. 11, Ben Affleck's Ryan races through burning hazy Baltimore like the 1983 TV movie The Day After. How many died? Sum won't say, soft-pedaling the carnage, but surely after Sept. 11 we can handle specific numbers.

Again, this frustrates because Clancy is good at specifics (certainly better than with dialogue or character), and his jargony techno-thrillers depend on being terribly up-to-the-moment. (Both Ryan and adversaries communicate endlessly via PDA messages, requiring the viewers to read the movie more than watch it.) The appeal to Clancy's genre is that we in our cubicle-dwelling, Web-surfing, copier-unjamming, office-bound lives can identify, just barely, with Ryan the Information Warrior. An unmarried junior-level CIA staffer, he's a dweebish desk jockey at heart. That's why Affleck's basic likability works well here; he's lighter than previous Ryans Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin.

Indeed, Ryan's modest, dutiful credo—"I just write reports"—reflects his preference for the safe, cheerful office over the dark, dangerous field. He's an intelligence analyst, not an assassin, which is why Ryan would be the first to tell you that not all the information in Sum adds up.

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