How do you solve a problem like Jack Ryan? This appears to be a question Hollywood has been asking itself for over two decades. Tom Clancy’s most famous creation—the lowly, bookish CIA analyst who over the course of around a dozen modern espionage novels becomes President of the United States—has assiduously avoided successful attempts at long-term adaptation. Amazon’s new take on the character, starring John Krasinski, is the fifth attempt in a long line of varying tries to make Jack Ryan a cinematic icon.
The most well-known incarnation still remains, arguably, the two pictures Harrison Ford portrayed him in – 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, both from Australian director Philip Noyce – and it is perhaps one of the most unfortunate roads not taken that Ford didn’t continue in the role and build to Ryan’s Presidential years. While Clancy was still writing books featuring the character, Ryan then went away for a while, cinematically. Ford wasn’t, of course, the first incarnation of the character.
Alec Baldwin portrayed him in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, which might still be the most famous Clancy adaptation by virtue of Sean Connery’s star turn as a Russian submarine commander in the last years of the Cold War. Baldwin, however, was overshadowed by Connery, as was Ryan by Connery’s character. Ford, playing a slightly older and more established Jack, fitted the part like a glove but it took Ben Affleck, in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, to have another run at the part. Despite capturing Ryan’s youthful shabby chic well, in a post-9/11 story almost presaging our current geopolitical tensions with Russia egged on by the far right, a franchise never took.
From this point on, every adaptation attempted to reboot Ryan as a youthful protagonist with an origin story. The Sum of All Fears attempts to recreate Ryan’s mentor/student relationship between Affleck’s Ryan and Morgan Freeman’s William Cabot, which Ford and James Earl Jones captured nicely in the Ford films (albeit Jones playing the character of James Greer, who we’ll return to), while it depicted Jack’s early relationship with his wife to be, Dr Cathy Mueller (in The Hunt for Red October and the Ford films, they have long been married and have children). Affleck’s Ryan, much like Ford’s, is not a field man; he repeatedly states he’s an analyst and is way out of his depth when thrown into situations that require an action man approach. This perhaps explains why the next attempt to reboot Jack Ryan sputtered out of the traps.
2014’sJack Ryan: Shadow Recruit arguably sows the biggest seeds for the eventual Jack Ryan TV series we are here to talk about, as Kenneth Branagh’s film (yes, Branagh, you read that right – he also plays the Russian villain) works hard to reconceptualise Ryan as a modern action hero. Chris Pine essays the character off the back of his appearance in another reboot, as James T. Kirk in the Star Trek franchise, and brings a different sense of the character as a young man than Affleck; here he is a former Marine who gains a similar mentor figure in Kevin Costner’s Thomas Harper, while Keira Knightley is yet again Cathy in the early stages of their relationship.
In theory, Shadow Recruit should have done what none of the previous versions achieved for Jack Ryan – make him an American, cinematic action hero. The only problem was, aside from the fact Shadow Recruit was a lacklustre film, that by making Ryan a veritable Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise’s super spy from the Mission Impossible franchise), you lose the core essence of what Clancy did with Ryan. His books were never pulpy, Ian Fleming masculine wish fulfilment or gadget-sporting escapism, they were heavily geopolitical conspiracy thrillers which frequently tapped into the technical side of CIA espionage. Ryan was never a slick secret agent. He was, as Affleck would state, an analyst. The Ford films worked because his portrayal was of a man who showed capability in the hero stakes when necessary, but first and foremost he was the guy in the briefing room, not the villain’s lair.
Amazon’s Jack Ryan works hard to try and learn these lessons, particularly when it comes to the origin story of the character. Krasinski’s Jack is at the beginning of his career; less shabby than Affleck’s nerdier take but he’s not traditionally handsome and chiselled either – Krasinski ports over the slightly wearisome office everyman from The Office on which he made his name, a characteristic which fits a version of Ryan who is always the guy amidst a sea of intelligence bureaucrats coming up with the theory about how to stop the bad guys, but always underpins his actions with an honest nobility and an aversion to ‘field ops’. Showrunners Carlton Cuse & Graham Roland do at least find a way to bake this into Ryan’s backstory, and give him reasons why he prefers sitting behind a desk.
First and foremost, of course, Jack Ryan is an action series. How could it not be? It would never have competed if Jack was solely the bookish man in the office and the eight-part series, at plenty of opportunities, finds a way for Jack to confront his personal demons and operate in the field – be it hunting terrorists in Syria, or metropolitan Paris, or the refugee camps of Turkey. Krasinski convinces as an intelligence officer with brains and brawn when necessary, while the show refuses to simply fashion Jack into a larger than life character. It seeks to ground him wherever possible and it works – particularly in contrast to Wendell Pierce’s version of James Greer, who grows steadily from irascible to badass as their partner dynamic edges from a cliche, new age Riggs & Murtaugh into something deeper. Krasinski is easily the best fit for Jack Ryan outside of Harrison Ford, and equally his relationship with this version of Cathy (played by Abbie Cornish, also well cast), convinces. Jack works, therefore, so does the show.
That being said, Jack Ryan is hampered by a feeling that it rocked up ten years too late. You’ve seen this entire storyline before, or some variation of it, in both 24 and Homeland. Jack Ryan’s first series pitches the character and the CIA against Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suleiman), a nascent future Osama bin Laden—only hailing from the current trouble spot, Syria—and inevitably he is sort of Daesh, sort of a man with his own agenda to bring on another 9/11 or critically attack Western civilisation. Jack Ryan does work hard to flesh the villain out as much as the hero, showing how—much like bin Laden—a Western education and flirtation with globalisation ended up transforming him into the extremist even his family are trying to escape from. It just, oddly, feels nothing new.
This is particularly ironic given how hard Jack Ryan is constantly working to be ‘relevant’ in our current climate of extremist terrorism tearing apart the Middle East, hints of Russian connections in the background (there are heavy suggestions that Russians will be the bad guys next season – though reports claim Jack is headed to South America, so…), refugee camps and hard borders etc… everything we’re seeing on the news every day. Yet the more Jack Ryan attempts to move away from Clancy’s Cold War espionage tales and his post-Cold War battles against less relevant threats to democracy like the IRA (in Patriot Games) or Colombian drug cartels (in Clear and Present Danger), the less the narrative grips you. More than once part of me wished they’d gone ‘period’ and made an 80’s set Jack Ryan series, allowing them to tap into more of Clancy’s original material. Not everything has to be politically timely.
On the flip side, perhaps the reason Clancy’s novels were so successful is precisely *because* Jack Ryan existed inside a timely political landscape. Perhaps we are simply saturated by drama which seems as determined to make a sociopolitical point as telling a ripping yarn. Let the jury be out on that one. It will depend on your point of view, but at the very least, Jack Ryan manages to establish a grounding on which it can almost certainly grow. While the narrative fails to innovate, and even with just eight episodes there are points where the storytelling drags, we have potentially the strongest ensemble in these roles since the early 1990’s. With time, the right story, and retaining all the principles involved, Jack Ryan could become a far stronger, far more interesting show.
The writers just need to let Jack be Jack. He doesn’t need to be the man of action. That’s what John Clark is for. Although that, as they say, is a whole other story…