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Amazon’s “Jack Ryan”: A hero out of time?

The world needs Jack Ryan, but can he exist in our world?

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed “Jack Ryan”. The production value was obviously high. There were fewer details that former government employees will roll their eyes at and say, “that’s not how any of this works”. I say fewer because there were still a handful of immersion breaking moments. Most of those come in the last two episodes, which I will discuss below. But if you just want the quick version: “Jack Ryan” is worth your Prime subscription.

I’ve read every Clancy novel, most of them multiple times. I watched the movies with a gimlet eye, angered when they, inevitably, missed the depth of the novels. It’s hard to cram the intricacies of international espionage in a 90-minute film. Harder still is taking a well-known character, with a well-developed back story, and updating him for the times. There’s a reason that James Bond’s history is always nebulous: modern viewers have rarely read the Ian Fleming novels and a shadowy leading man is much easier to re-cast. Jack Ryan may be one of those characters better left in the—recent—past. He’s just too good for our times.

The trouble with Jack is that he’s “such a Boy Scout”. That is why major papers’ reviews have been so negative. Jack’s story has been picked out of the late seventies and early eighties and deposited in 2018. It almost works. It is easy to believe that a young Marine, nearly killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan can be the same ideologue that we meet in the novels. The backstory remains very faithful to source material: Jack, the son of a Baltimore cop, matriculates from Boston College, has a PhD in economics, and has spent time working in the rarefied atmosphere of finance. Through it all, he’s kept his belief that one man can make a difference. He joins the CIA, after leaving a powerful Wall Street firm, because he wants to serve his country.

It’s here that the new Ryan’s background clashes with the story-line. The Ryan of Clancy’s novels is a married family man happily teaching history when he is pulled into working for the CIA. He doesn’t leave a high-paying job on Wall Street to join the CIA because he’s called to serve. His service is in teaching the next generation of naval officers. He has a brilliant, loving wife, an adoring daughter, and a quiet existence. The old Ryan’s chopper went down in the Mediterranean during a training exercise. He was never deployed to the “graveyard of empires”. Prime’s Jack Ryan has served at least one combat tour in Afghanistan. He’s witnessed the clash of cultures and civilizations. He watched his men, and innocent civilians, die. He nearly died himself in service to his country. The battle-scarred Jack we see tossing and turning night after night clashes with his “but we’re the good guys” attitude when he has to work with less than savory foreign liaisons. No one comes home from Afghanistan with his naivete intact.

One of the biggest reasons that the new Ryan character misses the mark—and let me be clear, it just barely misses—is that he doesn’t have that happy family to return to. Cathy Ryan kept Jack honest during all of those soul-sucking years at the Agency. In his darkest days, dealing with a President unfit for his role, and as the world teetered on the brink of nuclear apocalypse, Jack had an anchor. He was fighting for something far more tangible than “God, Honour, Country”. He risked death and a charge of high treason for Cathy, Sally, and Little Jack. Without those touchstones, I worry that the new Jack Ryan is too brittle. Without the force of Cathy Ryan’s married devotion, I fear he will lose his way.

This, then, was my biggest complaint about the series. Having Jack meet Cathy while already working for the CIA, and then engage in casual, hook-up, sexual encounters, felt forced and un-true to the rest of his character. It is certainly less anachronistic to have a young government-service professional un-married and still seeking love, but if you’re going to preserve so much of the good 70’s Catholic-boy persona, why not take it that much further? It would have been far more loyal to the character that he maintains his idealistic outlook because of a supportive family life, than to have him struggle alone.

Picking John Krasinski for this role was a risk, but one that paid off. His open and expressive features excellently convey the moral quandaries he finds himself in. If you’re worried that all you’ll see is Jim Halpert from “The Office”, go watch “13 Hours”. Not only is Krasinski a capable action hero, he’s the perfect casting for an analyst turned field operative.

Beyond the thrill of seeing a beloved character portrayed on the screen, the real gem of “Jack Ryan” is Dina Shihabi’s portrayal of Hanin. She could so easily have been a cookie-cutter personification of a Muslim wife, or of a refugee. Her maternal motivations and devotion are powerful yet not over-played. She has many opportunities to betray her husband more fully than she does. That she cannot, or will not, take those steps shows a surprising complexity not often found in TV characters.

Hanin’s husband, Suliman, is the season’s antagonist. He, too, is a far more complex character than typically found in such series. You could almost like this guy … if he wasn’t such a murderous thug. That’s a theme often repeated in the show. A Turkish asset is a pimp, rapist, and drug dealer, but he’s also surprisingly affable. By the end of the episode featuring Numan Acar, I had to remind myself that I shouldn’t be rooting for him.

Sadly, the last two episodes of “Jack Ryan” felt rushed. After six hours of careful character and story development, major plot points are chaotically concluded. Some of the careful fact-checking and realistic details also fly out the window. The terrorists’ end-game is needlessly intricate and unnecessary. The only benefit of this frenetic conclusion (temporary though it may be, as “Jack Ryan” has been renewed for another season) is that it avoids a trite character denouement. Jack doesn’t realize his idealism is all for naught, and his salty superior hasn’t found some new ability to see the good in all mankind.

“Jack Ryan”, pulled from the Cold War and thrust into the new world dis-order, faces radical Islamic terrorism instead of IRA nationalists. The titular character suffers from PTSD, struggles to remain morally righteous, and gets swept up in a game far bigger than he. The cinematography is superb and the locales breathtaking. Several of the supporting characters are worthy of a series of their own, and the dialogue is both believable and un-forced. Can Jack Ryan be modernized yet remain faithful to his Boy Scout roots? The jury’s still out, but for our sake, I hope the answer is yes. The world needs more Jack Ryans.

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