I admit, as a movie-goer growing up I didn't make the immediate connection that Harrison Ford in Patriot Games was the same character as Alec Baldwin in the Hunt for Red October.
One was a bit of an intellectual desk-jockey and the other was Indiana Jones. Many years later, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine, and eventually John Krasinski would play Tom Clancy's CIA analyst, Jack Ryan. Each tried to put their own spin on the character.
The first Tom Clancy novel that I read was Rainbow Six, which doesn't feature Jack Ryan at all. Although parts of it were silly - the elite anti-terrorist squad happens to be on a flight which is hijacked, resulting in them quietly separating and picking off the bad guys one-by-one, Liam Neeson style - the rest was fascinating. Tom Clancy has a knack for making you feel like you're training with the elite squad and that you understand what it takes to plan and free the hostages. His stories feel like a series of chess moves, each side taking their turn. President Reagan famously said that "The Hunt for Red October" was his "kind of yarn” - perhaps the ultimate endorsement of the story’s 80s sensibilities - and is chided with propelling Clancy to his bestseller rank.
So, what to make of a 2018 Jack Ryan, when Russia's threats come not in the nuclear form but as cyberattacks and election-influencing? Rebranding Ryan as a fighter of modern terrorism simultaneously feels like a no-brainer while coming a decade too late. The reason shows like 24 were such a success is that they were post 9/11 during a time when Americans wanted to see jet fighters incinerate terrorist bases and smart guys keep us all safe. After nearly twenty war-on-terror-weary years, though, it just feels a bit tired. Shows like Homeland freshen it up a bit by taking Clancy's hardware knowledge and applying it to Homeland Security’s inner workings.
Half the fun of Homeland comes from its political maneuvering to get things done - spies being spies and politicians having agendas. In that show's first season, the actual attack is not the show's thrust. The viewer instead is lost in the gray area of whether the lead is a good guy or bad guy, and when we find out, it's not so much we want to see the attack stopped as we don't want to see the fallout for his family. It's character drama over plot, and the scene where Brody is on the phone with his daughter trying to decide what happens next is truly intense.
Amazon Prime's Jack Ryan starts with simple chrome block lettering which reads "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan". It looks like iMovie's stock trailer footage, which is perplexing for a big-budget production, but seems the perfect metaphor for the show’s straightforward world view. Krasinski is a likable Ryan, spinning the character more towards analyst than brawler. His boss, played by the Wire's Wendell Pierce, brings the same intensity you'd expect, and makes the best of the script’s limitations.
The two are on the trail of the "next Bin Laden", globe trotting and always landing where the next shoot-out occurs. The actual plot is very 24-ish, where they thwart an attack, but it's just a stepping-stone to the next attack. There are cliches - higher ups don't listen to the main character's dire warnings, Jack's love interest ends up at exactly the same place as the bad guys - but perhaps most disappointing is that the elite military assault teams fumble through ops with the same precision as Star Wars stormtroopers. If you're going to wear the Tom Clancy badge, do a little research. Authenticity was his thing, after all.
The show has mixed results when it treads into moral ambiguity. The antagonist’s flashbacks of facing subtle discrimination as a Muslim in France are surprisingly restrained, and one of the better parts of the writing. One can imagine a very good Breaking Bad-type series detailing how he spiraled from earnest intellectual to terrorist. His brother’s loyalty is similarly well-written. When his brother is on the run and must choose between murdering an old friend’s family or jeopardizing his mission, the viewer honestly worries what he will do. However, a sublot on the American side with a guilt-riden drone pilot ventures into “what the hell?” territory when we find ourselves in a Vegas hotel room while a perverted husband beats the pilot after a voyeuristic tryst with his wife. This sets up the psychological motivation for the drone pilot to stop an overseas sexual assault with a hellfire missle. Even worse, the bad guy hit by the missile reappears later, Terminator-style, to continue his arc. In Clancy’s books professionals are professional and miltary weaponry is not set to stun.
Despite my grievences, Amazon’s Jack Ryan wasn’t a bad diversion. It’s been renewed for season two and I will watch it. Some very good series - Breaking Bad for example - meandered their first season but later hit their stride. I see Michael Bay listed as a producer - so I’m not optimistic that it won’t all be explosions and gunfights - but I’ll give it a second chance and see where it goes.