Sum of All Fears, K-19

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Sum of All Fears

The Islamic terrorists are neo-Nazis, the bomb is in Baltimore rather than Denver and Jack Ryan is a junior flunky rather than a senior national security advisor. Outside of that, it's identical to the Tom Clancy book.

The principal problem with this film is the conclusion, which is based heavily on what I call Predictable Stupidity. You know the drill - the hero sneaks into the villain's office but doesn't cover his back, a minor misunderstanding spirals out of control because someone didn't have the brains to scream for attention and clear things up, the fixated cop refuses to pay attention to evidence that his suspect is innocent, the little kid has the vital information but the dumb adults won't listen, et cetera. In all cases some huge problem erupts because the hero neglects a simple and obvious solution. Predictable Stupidity is why I have never bothered to watch While You Were Sleeping. Of course, if the hero did use common sense instead of Predictable Stupidity, there wouldn't be much of a film in many cases. While You Were Sleeping did a whole lot better at the box office than a six-minute film called Sandra Bullock Resolves a Minor Misunderstanding would have.

The Predictable Stupidity in this film comes when the radiation survey after the bomb goes off shows conclusively that the fissionable material in the bomb was American. First of all, that information should have been going up the normal military chain of command at the speed of light, and should have reached the President within minutes. But Jack Ryan, who in the film is merely a low level CIA agent, talks his way in to getting a two-star general to let him talk on the Hot Line. Then he engages in some lofty rhetoric that calms down the jittery Russian President, and negotiates a cease fire (!). The dialog made sense in the book since Ryan was a high level figure known and trusted by the Russians, but is utterly unbelievable coming from a low level flunky. At no point does Ryan think to make the obvious statement that would have shut the crisis down immediately: "The f###### bomb was not made by the Russians!"

K-19: The Widowmaker

The first feature film made with the National Geographic label. We can hope that becomes a guide to well-made, historically and technically accurate films. Liam Neeson is the sympathetic commander of a Russian nuclear submarine in 1961, Harrison Ford is the crusty Party superior who assumes command over him. The film was made on an actual Russian sub of that vintage (how times have changed!)

Neeson is suspect in Party circles for valuing his crew above the Party, and he and Ford clash over training tactics and risks. But the two grow to respect one another when a reactor fails and the sub is placed in mortal danger. Ford eventually defies Moscow and moves his crew off the crippled and lethally radioactive sub.

The only serious scientific problem in the film concerns the possibility that the reactors might explode and precipitate World War III. Shame on National Geographic for helping to perpetuate the voodoo science that a nuclear reactor could ever become a bomb. For a nuclear explosion to occur, the entire chain reaction must take place in milliseconds and only very carefully designed explosive mechanisms can make that happen. Second, even if by some cosmic lapse in the laws of physics, the sub were to explode in a nuclear blast, I doubt that even in the jittery days of 1961, an isolated  nuclear blast in the middle of the Atlantic would have been viewed as the opening salvo of a nuclear war. The closest American ship was keeping a prudent distance and even if it were destroyed, it was probably sending messages to headquarters that it was monitoring a Russian sub in distress.

When the sub returned home, the survivors were interrogated for months afterward, forced to sign a lifetime secrecy agreement, and the men who died trying to save the sub were denied their recommended awards because it was "only" an accident. 

Even today, more than a decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union, we find apologists who assert that Communism really wasn't that bad and that the U.S. response to it was "hysterical." There is no more striking proof of what a loathsome system it was, and how loathsome its apologists were, than the way Communism treated some of its most loyal and heroic servants.

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Created 20 September 2002, Last Update 02 June 2010  

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