Guestwriter: John Price
I fully admit: I was nervous going in. The past few installments of the Jack Ryanverse haven’t exactly been home-runs. But Amazon’s Jack Ryan (2018) exceeds all expectations and, while it doesn’t set the bar, it’s a strong statement that Netflix isn’t the only game in town for original action shows anymore.
After the brilliant opening salvo of The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), and Clear and Present Danger (1994), it seemed the franchise was just getting started. And then it just stopped. Sadly, both attempts at resurrecting the franchise with The Sum of All Fears (2002) and Shadow Recruit (2014) were little more than forgettable blockbusters.
Part of the problem has been the portrayal of Jack himself. Alec Baldwin’s Ryan was kinda nerdy and clearly not a field agent; you believed him instantly when he declared that he only writes books. Harrison Ford brought a different edge to Ryan, in part because the audience knew that — just like Indiana Jones — the bookish boy scout was covering up an action hero just under the surface. If Ford’s Ryan needed to get himself out of trouble — say by jumping onto a Huey or piloting a speedboat, the audience believed he could.
As Larry Young has so correctly summarized: Ben Affleck and Chris Pine weren’t to blame, per se; as a movie, The Sum of All Fears was very poorly timed (released months after 9/11), and Shadow Recruit was just too generic overall, with nothing distinctively “Jack Ryan” about it.
Enter Jim, err, I mean, John Krasinski, who has quietly become one of today’s leading action stars. One of my biggest fears about this show was that Krasinski would fall back into this 13 Hours Navy SEAL persona — one that, while outstandingly portrayed, is most definitely not Jack Ryan. To be sure, there is room for interpretation of the character, but not much; like James Bond or Batman, the audience already knows Ryan, even if only from one or two of the movies. Jack Ryan is an analyst, a cerebral problem-solver, reluctantly thrust into a grey world which doesn’t look kindly on his black and white morality. This dynamic is fundamental to the character and the setting, and one that, I’m happy to say, the show pulls off brilliantly.
Ryan’s foil, the brute to his intellect, is James Greer. Let’s be clear: this is not a rehash of James Earl Jones’ famous portrayal of Greer. Where Jones’ Greer was playful and intriguing, Wendell Pierce’s Greer is bitter and cynical and has no time or patience for a bike-riding, cubicle-working upstart. I wasn’t sure about the rocky relationship between Greer and Ryan at first, but it quickly became one of the highlights of the pilot episode.
The other big highlight for me was the establishment of the villain, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman). We don’t get a lot of information in the first episode — who he is, what he wants, but the episode is framed by a flashback of Lebanese children in 1983 who become the victims of an aerial bombing. By the time it’s made clear that it was Suleiman and his brother in the flashback, the show’s thematic heart has been established and reinforced: circumstances dictate actions, not ideology.
Back in the good ole’ USA, there are lots of overt references to Suleiman being the next Osama bin Laden spliced with some necessary exposition on how the bulk of the war on terror is mundanely fought by men and women in cubicles, deep in the bowels of faceless buildings. Anyone who has seen movies or television before will recognize the setup: the lowly analyst figures out the big secret but no one listens to him until it’s too late. But Jack Ryan has a great skill to twist around plot points and misdirect the audience in ways that feel very real. The grounded storytelling explicitly focuses on the lack of binaries: that is, the blurry lines between good and evil, right and wrong, success and defeat. After all, the world is grey.
If I had to pick a negative, it would be the reliance on one too many tropes. For a show that is so good right off the bat at manipulating its audience, the pilot especially suffers from this problem (albeit presumably because it is a pilot). In the necessary push to establish characters and settings, it embraces the TV version of life in Washington, DC. Jack lives in Georgetown, of course, and he rides his bike to work in Langley, Virginia, which… sure, I guess it’s possible, but I’d be curious to know if anyone actually does that. More likely, Ryan lives north of Georgetown, west of Rock Creek Park… but I digress.
Similarly, Ryan’s former boss Jim Mueller (played by the underrated Victor Slezak) hosts a large party and tries to get insider information, and of course, his daughter Cathy (Abbie Cornish) enters the show as a potential love interest. This is all broken up by the Coast Guard landing a helicopter in the middle of the party to whisk Ryan away to the Middle East for his first adventure. It’s a visually engaging scene, but one that veers away from the grounded believability of the rest of the show.
The final battle between Suleiman’s forces and the American outpost could have easily devolved into a 13 Hours remake, but the show stayed its course, allowing the fighting to be done in service of the plot and the characters. The pilot is heavy on exposition — as pilots do — but the battle scene really provides a new layer of depth to the show. We get to see Greer in action, part of the terrorists’ plot is unveiled, and Jack Ryan saves the day… in as much as a near-total defeat can be saved. Again, I have to give Krasinski credit here for his interpretation of Jack Ryan as a guy who just wants to help out behind the scenes, where he can control what is right and wrong, but is thrust into a world where the rules don’t apply and right and wrong are reduced to points of view. Seeing how he navigates this liminal space should be interesting, to say the least.
The pilot episode of Jack Ryan clearly establishes that Amazon has entered the action game; no longer is Netflix the undisputed champ of original action content. Amazon has been doing well with their dramas (Bosch) and comedies (The Tick), but to me, Jack Ryan is a direct shot across the bow to Netflix and its retinue of hero and action shows. Interestingly, Jack Ryan is only 8 episodes. It’s hard not to view that as another direct shot at Netflix, as well. For years there have been grumblings that Marvel’s Netflix shows should be 8 instead of 13 episodes, and Jack Ryan will be a good test case for whether that complaint stands up. Where Marvel’s 13-episode shows tend to drag in the middle (despite the overall quality of the show), Amazon can set the standard for the 8-episode action series.
Even without the high production value, this show would not work without Krasinski’s standoffish and conflicted portrayal of Ryan. Suffering from combat PTSD and willingly planted at a desk tracking financial transactions, Krasinski’s Ryan has no intention of being a hero or saving the world. And when the time comes, he hesitates, clearly more comfortable talking and thinking than running around punching his way out of trouble. But what he wants and what he has to do to get out the situations in which he finds himself are not the same thing. Circumstances, not ideology.
At the end of the first episode, the camera zooms in and lingers on Krasinski’s face as he watches the enemy drive away. He’s bleeding, surrounded by burning cars and dead bodies, having been thrust into a world — all too similar to our own — that could use his moral and ethical clarity.
From the fire, a hero is born.