Saturday, May 30, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: Sum of All Fears

You've been on pins and needles for somebody to review the books your dad was reading when you were in middle school; we're here to help.  Last year, we read all of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books in order of Ryanverse chronology rather than order of publication (we include the John Clark and Jack Ryan Jr. books in this process).  This year, we're doing it again and posting about each of the books as we complete them/manage to be sufficiently unlazy to actually post a blog.  Your comments are more than welcome. NOTE: POSSIBLE DECADES-OLD SPOILERS!!!


Jack Ryan is now the Deputy Director of Intelligence, but now he has a lot of crappy bosses.  The new CIA director, Marcus Cabot, is lazy and impressed with himself for being the CIA director. Charles Alden, National Security Adviser, conveniently and suddenly dies, the NSA position then going to Elizabeth Elliott, who had a run-in with Jack a book ago.  We'll cover her, um, female dog-iness hereafter.  President Bob Fowler is a good man but just doesn't understand national security, leaning foolishly on his non-Jack advisers.  Burned out and finally being asked to leave, he finds himself facing One Last Job.

Despite his hatred of his job and his body breaking down, Jack comes up with an idea that will certainly end war in the Middle East: a multi-religion quasi-theocracy will govern Jerusalem and dispute parts of Israel, with security provided by the Swiss and American armies.  The main function of this byzantine plotline is to make Jack unhappy as he gets no credit while President Fowler basks in the glow of his world-saving awesomeness with the hot but vile Liz Elliott by his side.

In a 1973 battle, an Israeli fighter jet carrying a nuclear bomb is shot down in Syria.  While officials believe the bomb was destroyed in the crash, it remains intact, but a farmer just buries it.  His son later discovers it and passes on the information to his friends who happen to be engineers/terrorists, Ismael Qati and Ibrahim Ghosn.  Qati and Ghosn team up with some German socialist terrorists and decide to blow up the Super Bowl to be held in Denver (we'll get to that) and stage a few other actions to bait the Americans and the Soviets into nuking each other.  Or is that their goal?  A conversation between Jack and Qati seems to suggest that the terrorists actually wanted the Americans to nuke the holy city of Qom, which would make them the enemies of all Islam and undo the peace treaty (which strikes us as a less effective goal than having their infidel enemies eliminate each other).  If that seems like a nonsensical twist and a cheap way to bring back the peace talks story to you, you would be correct.

Sioux tribesman/criminal/murderous badass Marvin Russell watches his criminal brother get killed by the FBI in a standoff, so he goes off to hook up with the terrorists who don't tell him the full extent of the plan.  He serves to help operations on the ground once they're in Colorado.  No, this doesn't make a tiny bit of sense.

Loggers cut down some trees to be used in a temple in Japan, requiring a lot of special treatment in the way they are handled.  While being transported from the U.S. to Japan, a storm causes them to lose some of the logs.  That's it.  No, we are not making this up - this required many pages of detail. More on this ultra-compelling story later.  (Actually, that's enough.)

Cathy Ryan is worried about her husband; he sleeps poorly, he's gotten fatter, he's been hitting the bottle pretty hard, he barely sleeps, and he's never around.  She sees this as the perfect opportunity to have another child (who wouldn't?) but is thwarted by Jack's malfunctioning baby cannon. Since Jack was too stupid to tell her about his promise to the dying Buck Zimmer (in Clear and Present Danger) to take care of Zimmer's wife and kids, when Cathy hears a Liz Elliott-engineered hit piece on the news about a high-ranking government official accused of sexual misconduct, she immediately freaks out.  Rather than actually talking to her husband, she freaks out.

John Clark drives Jack around and Ding Chavez goes to college.  Clark and Chavez serve as bodyguards, health advisers, and marriage counselors.  They also arrest (yes, arrest) the terrorists. We imagine Tom Clancy wrote Without Remorse next to make it up to Clark for treating him so badly in this book.


Tom Clancy is frequently referred to as a Cold War author which is only partially true.  Jack Ryan does go back to battle the Russkies 1 1/2 times even after the dissolution of the USSR (Red Rabbit and the flashback parts of Command Authority).  While the Russians are the most compelling opponent (they seem to be of the few groups he truly respects and grudgingly admires), Clancy made an effort to diversify the bad guys - American drug dealers, the Colombian drug cartel, Japanese fascist businessmen, an Iranian dictatorship, the IRA, and in Sum, German and Syrian socialist terrorists teaming up.  In each case, Clancy is primarily interested in the how of their evil deeds and only occasionally the why.  Bad guys get story arcs, but not character arcs.  

Everybody Hates Liz

It would have been more interesting if Liz had had more outright admirers, but virtually everybody in the book calls her a female dog at least once, including the President she's sleeping with.  Her character is reflective of the "shrew, saint, or victim" roles Clancy establishes for every woman. Married women are always saints, though single women can also be victims or shrews.  (You can be a victim/saint, but not a victim/shrew).  Predictably, in the time of crisis she assumes a mental/emotional fetal position and supports the most aggressive/crazy options, so President Bangshisadviser listens to her. 

Saint Cathy verbally destroys Shrew Liz in public (in front of reporters!) when she finds out that Liz has monkeyed with Her Man.


We assume he died in the terrorist attack in Denver, but either Tony Wills the star Vikings rookie running back survives the nuclear blast of the climax and goes on to work with Jack Ryan Jr at The Campus or Tom Clancy recycled the name in Teeth of the Tiger.    

More Techno Than a European Discotheque

This is the Tom Clancyest book in that point of the series.  We spend a tremendous amount of time in submarines, one American and one Russian, as they do absolutely nothing except spew a lot of jargon until a minor scene near the end of the book.  We're brought up to date on the old submarine gang from the previous books who are all now desk jockeys.

Voluminous pageload is full of description of how the nuke is built, in narration and through dialogue.  The primary item of consequence in the building process isn't a technical detail, but a brief story note of a crew member inadvertently tainting the bomb, rendering it significantly less effective.  In the afterword, Clancy warns us that anybody with a library card can get the details of how to build a WMD if they only get their hands on the proper materials; he makes alterations to some of the specifics "to salve my conscience, not in any reasonable expectation that it matters a damn."  As usual, the techno-jargon adds a sense of credibility if not readability.


A staple of Tom Clancy novels is putting forth an attack or crisis that is unimaginable, then it is made believable as the story and details of the plot unfold.  Contrasting that are less believable elements like how women talk and act, various heroes' ability to speak foreign languages with astonishing capability, the seeming infallibility of the FBI, returning characters obtaining jobs convenient to the new plots even in different countries or agencies, etc.  The crazy plot is more plausible than some of the human interactions.  Sum of All Fears makes a compelling case for how a devastating terror act could be carried out with no warning (can't track the Lone Wolf) but not why a Sioux guy would hook up with Syrian terrorists, or why the preternaturally level-headed Cathy wouldn't just talk to her husband when she had suspicions about his fidelity, or why the hell President Fowler wouldn't just pick up the freaking phone and call if he wasn't sure if it was Narmonov at the other end of the messaging system.

One of the least believable aspects of the story is that the Super Bowl is being held in Denver, which has long had an outdoor NFL stadium and the NFL wouldn't have its biggest game outside in a cold city (unless the New York teams just built a multi-billion dollar stadium).  Having the terrorists blow up the Super Bowl makes sense, but it makes us wonder if Tom Clancy ate a lousy steak there or if he got a lot of negative reviews in the Denver Post and was taking his fictional revenge.  Killing the secretary of state and the secretary of defense in the blast (along with the head of NORAD in Denver and another general in a car accident in Snowmageddon-ridden Washington D.C. area) helps narrow down Fowler's advisers to Jack vs. Liz, but was it necessary for the two Secretaries to be owners of the two teams that made the Super Bowl?

The book, like a Ryanverse male talking to a woman, is incredibly dense.  Clancy research positively beats the reader over the head (we're an experienced Clancy reader, so we know how and when to skim the drier parts).  There are some nice moments of humor and humanity as colleagues converse and get to know each other.  Sum really delivers in the meat of the book, creating massive tension from the time the bomb arrives in Denver all through the leadership crisis as Russia and America are on the brink of the war generations dreaded.  As usual, the action is crisp and transportive in the descriptions of Jack trying (and failing) to reason with Fowler while Elliott derails him, the attack in Germany fans the flames, and various elements of the government in Denver and Washington try to put the puzzle together.

Jack Ryan is like Jack Shephard from Lost.  Jack Shephard is supposed to be a man of reason/science yet is always the first one to sprint into the jungle with a gun and no plan.  Jack Ryan is repeatedly insinuate to be a "Boy Scout" because of all of his rule-following (clearly not an epithet devised by anybody who has ever actually worked with Boy Scouts), though he consistently steps outside the bounds of his position: he authorizes military exfiltrations, regularly tells off authority figures (the President, the Prince, etc.), usurps the US/USSR president-to-president communication line, accesses information he is not cleared for, shares information with people who are not cleared for it, constantly works around appropriate channels of authority/jurisdiction, and straight up becomes a temporary dictator in later books.  Both of these beloved Jacks are inaccurately portrayed in their respective roles. 

Sum of All Fears also lays some of the groundwork for Debt of Honor and Executive Orders by subtly integrating the future villains, though Without Remorse was actually the next book published.  It makes us wonder how Clancy structured the writing of these novels* - he published The Hunt for Red October first with the background story to Patriot Games built in, a casual comment in Clear and Present Danger summarizes the entirety of Without Remorse, and Mahmoud Haji Daryaei, co-villain of Debt of Honor and chief villain of Executive Orders is literally introduced to Jack Ryan in this book.

The Abominable Movie Starring Ben Paycheck

This was in a series of movies Ben Affleck did in an apparent attempt to squander all of the goodwill he had built up in previous performances; Reindeer Games, Pearl Harbor, Daredevil, Paycheck, Gili, Surviving Christmas, and this turd all were crapped out between 2000-2004.

Affleck's just here for that green paper, and the useless Bridget Moynahan is here to again sully the name of Cathy, this time as the premarital Dr. Muller.  Tom Brady's baby mama is a wet blanket (why the hell does she have so many candles lit in that scene?), though the above clip is probably the most interesting character moment in the movie.  The whole movie is very serious, but the Russian characters are all in an even more serious and maybe profound film:

Our wife made the point that this movie looks ten years older than it is.

Fortunately (?), Cathy survives this mostly unscathed.  Most of the movie makes very little sense. The neo-fascist bad guys want to take over the country after it's been leveled by nuclear war?  Jack's nebulous job description provides little explanation for why the president would listen to him in the first place.  The CIA conducts nuclear inspections for some reason, including Jack, who is an area studies and terrorism analyst. John Clark haphazardly takes untrained Jack on a dangerous mission. Jack survives the helicopter crash in the clip above but the others die, yet he is fine to go on stealing trucks and kicking butt. Only in Movie World does the lead have to physically be in every scene where there's action, regardless of the improbability of travelling to those locations in sufficient time.

Morgan Freeman is somewhat interesting as a non-bumbling Cabot (though Jack still does all the thinking for him) and Liev Schreiber is actually a strong choice to play John Clark, who is more kinetic in the movie than the book.  Director Phil Alden Robinson had previously helmed two really good movies, Field of Dreams and Sneakers, but this project was beyond his reach - poor flow, weak characterization, and a visual mess.

Why the hell isn't Mary Pat Foley prominently featured in any of these Jack Ryan movies?  She's a super-competent hot blonde!

How the WYNE Media Would Do Much Better

We'd leave much of the book's plots intact.  The movie did a smart thing in getting rid of the Marvin Russell story and the excruciating log transportation nonsense.  We'd also leave out the submarine stuff - too expensive and not interesting enough.  The movie did a dumb thing in making the villains Russian "neo-fascists." Maybe the movie release felt too close to 9/11 to have the villains be Middle Eastern, though why then do a terrorism movie at all?  In our TV season, the bad guys would be Arab Muslims, who don't have to be cartoons (they're not in the book).  The Middle East is where the bomb was found and is peppered with groups that do not care for America.  If you were to do it as a period piece (like in our book-per-season model starting with The Hunt for Red October), you could keep the Germans as the terror allies or you could have them be North Korean, Chinese, or Pakistani, all countries who are socialist and have nukes. 

We would add some dimensionality to Liz Elliott - give her causes to care about, let her have tender moments, have her enjoy things other than power.  And if Cathy doesn't talk to Jack, make it plausible: they start to converse but he's too drunk and passes out, they get interrupted with a call from the White House or her hospital, etc.  Jack's fraying psyche is critical to the plot; his temper and lack of patience are significant reasons the president doesn't want to listen to him anymore.

More Mary Pat Foley.  Hot, great at her job, wicked sense of humor...what's not to like?  We'd like to read the book series about her.


*We sent a fan letter to Tom Clancy in junior high asking how he writes his books.  He told us "one page at a time" which now seems to be a half-truth.

In the movie, the national anthem singer at the Super Bowl is singing a verse other than the first one.  It's a good performance, just unlikely.

In the fictional Super Bowl, Tom Clancy vaporized the Minnesota Vikings in 1991, then tried to buy the real team seven years later.

Fairly early on in the book, Jack says it's his first time in Rome, but the Pope assassination plot in Red Rabbit renders that untrue.

Sum of All Fears introduces us to Dmitri Popov, an officer in Russian intelligence, who reappears as a facilitator for the bad guys in Rainbow Six.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: Clear and Present Danger

You've been on pins and needles for somebody to review the books your dad was reading when you were in middle school; we're here to help.  Last year, we read all of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books in order of Ryanverse chronology rather than order of publication (we include the John Clark and Jack Ryan Jr. books in this process).  This year, we're doing it again and posting about each of the books as we complete them/manage to be sufficiently unlazy to actually post a blog.  Your comments are more than welcome. NOTE: POSSIBLE DECADES-OLD SPOILERS!!!


President [name redacted] of the [name redacted] Party is facing reelection and is trailing the Democratic candidate in the polls and needs to show he's getting things done.  In order to demonstrate his leadership skills to the voting public, he secretly authorizes his National Security Adviser, Admiral Cutter, and CIA's Deputy Director (Operations), Bob Ritter, to use the military to covertly destroy drug production in Colombia, without the consent or even the knowledge of the Colombian government.

Domingo "Ding" Chavez has evolved from a kid who survived the crime-ridden barrio to become a badass light infantry soldier for the US Army.  He's recruited for a top-secret mission which unravels.

Felix Cortez is a Soviet-trained former Cuban intelligence agent who now works for Ernesto Escobedo, a honcho in the Colombian drug cartel.  As he sniffs out the CIA's plan, Cortez envisions an opportunity to take control of the cartel for himself.

Captain Red Wegener of the Coast Guard and his crew discover a grizzly grisly murder of a family, which leads to the unearthing of a vast operation to move and hide cartel money.  Red and the gang use some unorthodox methods which come back to bite them, but have a shot at redemption in facilitating an important rescue. 

Jack Ryan is now the acting Deputy Director (Intelligence) as James Greer is dying of cancer. Having previously been shut out of the Colombia plan (and therefore was to unknowingly illegally withhold information from Congress), Jack discovers the operation and launches one of his own to rescue the soldiers in danger as the illegal mission falls apart.

Character Flow

Portagee Oreza's Ryanverse introduction here is as a tertiary character hanging out on the Coast Guard boat, though he reappears as a major character in the prequel Without Remorse and again in retirement in Debt of Honor.  We meet Ding Chavez, an important character in each of the subsequent books featured heavily in Rainbow Six and the Campus books.  Buck Zimmer is introduced and dies, Jack vowing to take care of his large family and see his children through college. Zimmer's family is visited a handful of times and Jack's secret support of them is blown up into a scandal in Executive Orders.

When Jack Ryan and John Clark finally meet, Jack learns that Clark has been involved in three of Ryan's operations: participating on the assaults on Action Directe and the abandoned ULA camp (from Patriot Games), and physically putting Gerasimov on the submarine in The Cardinal of the Kremlin.  No mention is made at this time (though it will be in a later book) that Ryan's detective father worked Clark's case in Baltimore.

Evil. Is. Punished.

Through the whole Jack Ryan series, the it's rare that villains go to jail.  They are usually reunited with their Maker, often at the hands/missiles of our heroes, but frequently by their fellow villains or suicide. Traitor Peter Henderson survives Without Remorse, but in Cardinal is caught and forced into being a double agent. In this book, the pirates who murdered the family on the yacht dodge the death penalty, but crooked cops arrange for some fellow inmates to eliminate them.  Danger is the first book where Clancy gets cute about punishing the main bad guys.  Felix Cortez and Ernesto Escobedo are apprehended by our heroes, but since they're unlikely to be properly prosecuted by the applicable justice systems, are delivered to Cuban intelligence and aggrieved cartel chiefs respectively.  Cutter dies in a non-accident.


Danger is a compelling military thriller and political thought exercise.  The War on Drugs is the setting, not the theme.  Drug addicts are considered only through the point of view of their military family members who wish to do harm to the producers of drugs.  The morality or effectiveness of the criminalization of drug use isn't contemplated, but clear contempt is expressed for drug dealers.  This book is largely an extolment of the rule of law.  Jack's problem isn't the idea of the operation or using the military to pursue non-defense aims, it's that he's being forced to lie about it, in violation of the law.

The primary question considered is who is responsible when the Big Choices are made, the person who has the authority to make the call or the personal delegated with the task of doing the actual work?  The answer is: all of the above.  Tom Clancy makes it clear: you must take responsibility to do what's right, especially when you've made a terrible choice, or you're scum.  Ryan stumbles onto the operation starting with information from a third party (the great Robby Jackson), but once he's discovered what has gone wrong, he does everything in his power (and outside it, too) to make it right.  Ritter knows Cutter is going to screw over the remaining soldiers in the jungle, has a crisis of conscience but still chooses self-preservation, and then helps after he's been called out.  Cutter always looks for the expedient and self-aggrandizing path, so Clancy throws him under the bus - literally. Ryanverse characters largely determine their own destiny, either directly like Admiral Cutter or more in the sense of putting themselves in position for Fate to make good use of them, like Jack.

Danger moves along at consistent pace and the dialogue feels natural and interesting.  The characters think and feel through their tasks.  Badasses Ding Chavez and Oso Vega experience dread, pride, determination, fear, and camaraderie in their training and mission. Clark feels elation at first when they bomb the cartel, but reminds himself he's not a psychopath (an idea revisited in Without Remorse).  Jack, ever the self-chider, is tempting to play the CYA game, swallows his fears of flying and combat, feels guilt and responsibility for the men in the jungle, and struggles to accept the reality of Greer's imminent demise (or taking his place).  Felix Cortez always has his eyes open, playing all sides to his advantage, and seizes opportunities as they present themselves.  Clear and Present Danger is one of Clancy's best in terms of both character and plot.


Check out the cast of this movie: Benjamin Bratt, Dean Jones, Thora Birch, James Earl Jones, Rex Linn (aka Frank from CSI Miami), Freddie from House of Cards, and Clark Gregg (aka Agent Coulson of the Avengers/Agents of SHIELD).  And those are the bit players!  Harrison Ford is a solid Jack Ryan, already experienced at playing an everyman who's also brilliant.  Henry Czerny is fun as Ritter, as you'd expect.  Anne Archer is boring. Cortez and Escobedo are well played by actors you've seen a million times, but my favorite bit of casting is Ding Chavez, played by Raymond Cruz.  You may know him as Tuco from Breaking Bad.  This Tuco:

The movie is an entertaining but somewhat lazy 90s thriller.  Some of the plot consolidation doesn't end up making sense.  Jack is inserted in a lot of action where he wasn't before (they were paying Harrison Ford a zillion dollars): he ends up investigating issues clearly under the jurisdiction of the FBI and showing up in Colombia just to get grenades launched at him. For some reason, President "Bennett" is friends with the crooked guy on the yacht, which mainly serves as a device for Jack to be proud of himself when the president takes his advice on not downplaying the relationship, which we suppose is to be a counterpoint to Jack yelling at the president at the end of the movie.  

Ritter is reduced to a shady bad guy and Clark a shady "good" guy with the weirdly cast Willem Defoe.  The problem of most movie adaptations is that the characters are largely stripped of personality and reduced to plot functionaries (see Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series); it's true for every character in this adaptation.  The morality and effectiveness of these political choices are barely considered.

The training scene where Ding blows the mind of the instructing officers is pretty great:

There's also a scene where Escobedo is playing in his batting cage while Cortez is challenging him to reconsider his thinking.  A baseball dramatically flies by Escobedo in slow motion.  It is some bold symbolism.

What About the Movie/TV Show to be Produced by WYNE Media?

What the Clear and Present Danger TV season could do is restore more of the conflicts that make it interesting.  The story most diminished in the transition from book to movie is that of the soldiers fighting in the jungle, from an emotional and action standpoint.  They feel an unease as they recognize they're all Spanish-speaking Latinos.  It is so devastating when Cutter abandons them and they don't know what's going on; Captain Ramirez is tortured by every decision possibility.  Part of the reason these particular soldiers are selected and dressed the way they are is to create an intra-cartel conflict, which is not addressed in the movie.  Cutter does everything he can to try to be divorced from any responsibility from his actions from the beginning.  The show could spend more time on the question of what the President is personally responsible for when he doesn't know the specifics of operations he authorizes or condones (timely with scandals of the last two administrations involving the IRS, NSA spying, Fast and Furious, etc.) In the book, Moira is a combination of widow hampered by grief and yet still a total catch, so the show could give her a lot more humanity than the movie.  The movie doesn't really develop any relationships and doesn't explain why Clark would forgive Ryan after he took the blame for cutting of the soldiers (a dumb deviation), so the show could allow these connections to breathe.


Dan Murray is a major fixture in the Ryanverse and a prominent FBI person, thus murdering him in the movie was shortsighted.  Dan Murray is the name of one of my high school buddies, who got to see a movie where the characters say "Dan Murray is dead."

Mormon update: we meet Senator Sam Fellows, "the tough-minded Mormon from Arizona" who is best friends with gay liberal New Englander Al Trent.  Jack Ryan is fascinated with the LDS temple.

The movie also includes a dramatic scene where a baseball is shown slow-motion flying through a batting cage for no reason at all.  Alas, we couldn't find a Youtube clip of this important moment.