Sum of All Fears, K-19

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

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

The principalproblem with this film is the conclusion, which is based heavily on what I callPredictable Stupidity. You know the drill - the hero sneaks into the villain'soffice but doesn't cover his back, a minor misunderstanding spirals out ofcontrol because someone didn't have the brains to scream for attention and clearthings up, the fixated cop refuses to pay attention to evidence that his suspectis innocent, the little kid has the vital information but the dumb adults won'tlisten, et cetera. In all cases some huge problem erupts because the heroneglects a simple and obvious solution. Predictable Stupidity is why I havenever bothered to watch While You Were Sleeping. Of course, if the hero diduse common sense instead of Predictable Stupidity, there wouldn't be much of afilm in many cases. While You Were Sleeping did a whole lot better at thebox office than a six-minute film called Sandra Bullock Resolves a MinorMisunderstanding would have.

The Predictable Stupidity in this film comeswhen the radiation survey after the bomb goes off shows conclusively that thefissionable material in the bomb was American. First of all, that informationshould have been going up the normal military chain of command at the speed oflight, and should have reached the President within minutes. But Jack Ryan, whoin the film is merely a low level CIA agent, talks his way in to getting atwo-star general to let him talk on the Hot Line. Then he engages in some loftyrhetoric that calms down the jittery Russian President, and negotiates a ceasefire (!). The dialog made sense in the book since Ryan was a high level figureknown and trusted by the Russians, but is utterly unbelievable coming from a lowlevel flunky. At no point does Ryan think to make the obvious statement thatwould have shut the crisis down immediately: "The f###### bomb wasnot made by the Russians!"

K-19: The Widowmaker

The first feature film made with the National Geographic label. We canhope that becomes a guide to well-made, historically and technically accuratefilms. Liam Neeson is the sympathetic commander of a Russian nuclear submarinein 1961, Harrison Ford is the crusty Party superior who assumes command overhim. The film was made on an actual Russian sub of that vintage (how times havechanged!)

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

The only serious scientific problem in the filmconcerns the possibility that the reactors might explode and precipitate WorldWar III. Shame on National Geographic for helping to perpetuate thevoodoo science that a nuclear reactor could ever become a bomb. For a nuclearexplosion to occur, the entire chain reaction must take place in millisecondsand 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 toexplode in a nuclear blast, I doubt that even in the jittery days of 1961, anisolated  nuclear blast in the middle of the Atlantic would have beenviewed as the opening salvo of a nuclear war. The closest American ship waskeeping a prudent distance and even if it were destroyed, it was probablysending messages to headquarters that it was monitoring a Russian sub indistress.

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

Even today, more than a decade after thebreakup of the Soviet Union, we find apologists who assert that Communism reallywasn'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 howloathsome its apologists were, than the way Communism treated some of its mostloyal and heroic servants.

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Created 20 September 2002, Last Update 24 May 2020 

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