What is it about Jack Ryan that makes him one of the most adapted characters in the American storytelling canon?
The character, CIA analyst John Patrick “Jack” Ryan Sr., was developed by Tom Clancy and first appeared in his 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October. Since then he’s appeared in countless books, video games, and movies. He’s been portrayed on film by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and most recently Chris Pine.
Now Jack Ryan is finally entering the last unconquered realm: television. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan debuts on August 31 and Amazon seems very, very excited about it. The first trailer debuted during the Super Bowl. Movie explosion enthusiast Michael Bay is producing alongside Paramount Studios. TV heavy hitters Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland (both of Lost fame) are running the show. John Krasinski even decided to take some time off from being a burgeoning movie star and celebrated director to slum it with us TV chuds. And if all that weren’t enough, Amazon has already renewed the show for a second season.
So…uh why? What isit about Jack Ryan that makes him not only so adaptable but so appealing to both creatives behind the camera and the purse string pullers behind them? After watching six of Jack Ryans 10 episodes available for review, I’m no closer to an answer.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon is fine with you leaving the “Tom Clancy’s” part off) is a modern update of the character and his story. Krasinski stars as the titular Ryan, an ex-Marine turned desk jockey at the CIA who is tasked with tracking terrorist cells’ finances. When former CIA case officer James “Jim” Greer (Wendell Pierce) is demoted to Jack’s department, Jack sees an opportunity to share some theories about a cell forming in Syria led by Islamic activist Suleiman (played, coincidentally by Ali Suliman). Soon Jack and Jim haveestablished a tenuous partnership and Jack begins to take on some more “hands on” assignments far, far away from his desk in Langley.
Perhaps the big appeal of the character of Jack Ryan is how much of a blank slate he is. He’s like the narrative fiction version of a “create-a-player” in a video game. His past is par for the course when it comes to political thrillers – from Maryland, big Orioles fan, has undisclosed physical and mental injuries from his time in the Marines. His morality is Rick Grimes-ian – whatever he feels about a subject is likely the “correct” way the show wants us to feel as well. He’s a staunch supporter and defender of his country but also expresses the appropriate levels of discomfort with some of its decidedly icky geopolitical decision-making. Even the name Jack Ryan is generally likable and unassuming – one syllable nickname as a personable first name and two syllable Anglo-sounding last name that just sounds like a firm handshake. He’s called Jack Ryan because Dave America would have been too on the nose.
There’s likely a reason why Jack Ryan has been played by no fewer than three, now four movie stars. He’s a larger than life figure masquerading as an average Joe, which is what incredibly famous actors do for a living anyway. On the Average Joe side of things, there may have never been a better choice for Jack Ryan that John Krasinski. Krasinski has already portrayed the average mediocre American male’s favorite avatar for himself in The Office’s Jim Halpert. Jack Ryan is basically that plus an Ivy League education and a weapons license.
Krasinski is almost overqualified for the role. It’s actually shocking that the show secured his services. Did no one see A Quiet Place? Did John Krasinski, himself, not see A Quiet Place? Krasinski’s Jack is teeming with intellect but also inflected with the right amount of believable frustration for “the way things are.” Being a hero comes far too easily and naturally for the character but Krasinksi is so preternaturally charming that it kind of works.
Also not for nothing: he fills out a bulletproof vest well. He’s like the exact opposite of that photo of Jared Kushner. It’s certainly a good sign for Jack Ryan that its Jack Ryan is appealing. Unfortunately likable doesn’t mean compelling.
This is a very capably made, and at times intelligent show. Cuse and Roland represent some real storytelling talent behind the camera and as seasoned TV vets, they make sure each episode feels like its own unique beast and also part of a larger story. The action, when it arrives, can also be legitimately thrilling. It’s the show’s general purpose and perspective that fails.
I can’t even begin to tell you how tired I am of television covering the War on Terror. Jack Ryan being a “modern” update on the character really just means that people on the show say “9/11” more frequently than Rudy Giuliani auditioning to replace the Count on Sesame Street. To the show’s credit, it does portray its villains as being more multi-dimensional than say, 24. Suleiman is certainly evil but his is a rational, knowable evil. It’s impressive how many scenes Jack Ryan allows to take place in Arabic with English subtitles rather than having the audience suspend disbelief that characters in Syria would speak in British-accented English amongst one another.
Still, 24 debuted nearly 20 years ago. And America has been engaged in exhausting wars with the same 24 villains, real and imagined, ever since. Being “better” than 24 simply isn’t enough. With this much time past, an update on the war on terror had better be revelatory and Jack Ryan is far from it. Too many scenes in Jack Ryan feature two bearded Middle-Eastern dudes talking obliquely in a desert (filmed in Morocco) while ominous oud and qanoun music plays. It’s not offensive; it’s boring.
I continue to wonder why Jack Ryan has proven so culturally “sticky.” The people involved with this are smart and talented yet the show feels so needless and inert. Maybe the appeal for Cuse, Bay, Krasinski, Roland, and everyone else at Amazon is that Jack Ryan, blank slate that he is, is the prototypical hero we liked to imagine ourselves as in our childhood fantasies. Jack Ryan is the cop in Cop and Robbers. He’s the cowboy in Cowboys and Indians. But we’re all adults now and Cowboy Cop Jack Ryan no longer has a believable, worthwhile place in the complicated geopolitical mess of our modern world.