THE MANY FACES OF JACK RYAN

Written By: François-Noël Vanasse

Season 2 of Jim Halpert John Krasisnski’s Jack Ryan (2018) has been threatening to premiere for what feels like an eternity but is actually coming out this week so this feels as good a time as ever to talk about the character of Jack Ryan himself. Having never read one of Mr. Clancy’s patented techno-thrillers and having played neither a Splinter Cell nor Rainbow Six game this discussion will be mercifully restricted to the film and television franchise. After recently completing the Jack Ryan franchise with a belated viewing of The Sum of All Fears (2002) it’s time to figure out just what this particular character is all about.

My experience with Jack Ryan begins, as is so often the case, with The Hunt for Red October (1990). October remains a total delight to this day featuring a young Alec Baldwin absolutely dripping with charisma in the lead role. His boyish good looks selling the character’s relative inexperience balanced by Baldwin’s natural bravado and gravitas. As a cold-war political thriller October is a film without compare. Once I’d hoped Hunter Killer (2018) could be its gonzo post-9/11 post-Trump mirror, but that film is simply a poor-man’s rip-off.

Baldwin’s turn as Ryan must have been a success for it was swiftly followed by two sequels Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) starring Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan. Ford is quite a bit older than Baldwin and by 1992 he was wearing those years. While this arguably makes sense in a prequel it turns Ryan from the fresh face in a sea of old men into just another Washington insider. The stories also feel like a departure from the series by being focused on personal threats and dangers to Ryan and his family. Ford is in his mid-90s groove here delivering fully serviceable performances even if I couldn’t honestly tell you what differentiates his Jack Ryan from his Dr. Richard Kimble (The Fugitive [1993]) or his President James Marshall (Air Force One [1997]). Ford’s Ryan is resolute and filled with a righteous fury.

A sequel to Danger failed to materialize.

In 2002 the franchise was wholly rebooted for the first time starring Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan with an embarrassment of riches in supporting cast members. Seventeen years ago the film, The Sum of All Fears must have seemed incredibly ill-conceived. But over 15 years of distance have done this picture some good. Once hot off the heels of well-known box-office bombs and critical failures like Reindeer Games (2000) and Pearl Harbor (2001), and about to subject audiences to stinkers like Daredevil (2003) and Gigli (2003), Affleck has today regained a certain degree of credit that retroactively prevents his performance from being written off. His youthfulness and eagerness are clearly designed to recall Baldwin’s legendary helming of the role but there’s a panic and concern to Affleck’s Ryan that is all Ford. In many ways this Jack Ryan feels the most definitive, or at the very least the one most worth exploring.

Fears’ bold swings failed to connect with audiences and did not successfully reboot the franchise.

Twelve years later the series was quietly rebooted yet again with the overtly named Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) starring hot-shot Chris Pine in the eponymous role. Recruit landed with a relative thud as audiences everywhere seemingly proclaimed “What? Again? Really?”. This film spends time setting up Pine’s Ryan as an economics student gripped by Patriotism after 9/11 who joins the Marines and breaks his back in some heroic helicopter accident. Secretly recruited by CIA operative Tom Harper (Kevin Costner) after his physical recovery, Ryan finds himself working undercover in Wall Street in order to analyze foreign movement of money to predict terrorist attacks before finally being pitted against billionaire Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) in a game of wits and fists. Perhaps another dozen years will age this movie well but it feels like a stilted action movie in the post-Bourne mold where events simply happen to our rudderless main character. This has the unfortunate effect of making him seem useless instead of the likely desired effect of making him seem like a reluctant hero. Thus despite being a competent modern action movie it comes across as a boring Hollywood vehicle with little to offer. 

That would be all they wrote about screen portrayals of Jack Ryan but the character was recently revived for a third time in 2018 as a television series on the premium subscription service Amazon Prime Video. Fully updated for our times the Amazon series pits Ryan against Islamic terrorists, taking its cues from American attempts at nuanced thrillers like The Kingdom (2007), Traitor (2008), and perhaps most likely, Homeland (2011). Krasinski convincingly plays the nerdy analyst Jack Ryan but the show turns the stop-at-nothing action hero into the end for Ryan’s arc instead of his starting point. Ryan’s inexperience is played up here which contrasts poorly with his history as a war hero and his supposed in-world usefulness as the smartest guy in the room. The show succeeds largely thanks to a colorful supporting cast.

Despite accusations of one-dimensionality, the supporting characters are some of the most memorable parts of all these portrayals. Sean Connery obviously steals the show as the Russian submarine commander but October is a slog without Courtney B. Vance or Sam Neill to lend some real emotion and anxiety to what is otherwise a battle of wits between two of the most stoic English-speaking actors the world has ever known. Being book adaptations, many characters recur from film to film but even when recast continue to be absolute delights on screen from stunning performers. The shift from Ford to Affleck gave us the switch from the inimitable Willem Dafoe to no less than Liev Schreiber in the role of Ryan’s black-ops counterpart John Clark. Weddell Pierce is similarly more than up to the task of filling James Earl Jones’ shoes as Ryan’s no-nonsense CIA boss James Greer, a role that had gone uncast in both previous reboots.

The Jack Ryan saga, like all film series, has aged. Series’ steeped in geopolitics tend to do so less than gracefully. Astonishingly the Ryan movies have, nestled within their natural hoo-rah jingoism, always contained trenchant critiques of American foreign policy. Critiques which only resonate more strongly with time. Ford’s second outing is downright seething with rage over America’s role in the drug-fueled destabilization of South American governments, which it somewhat limply attributes to a few bad apples. Pine’s attempt has confused messaging about Capitalism and marvels a bit too uncritically at our modern Surveillance State. It’s reasonable to chalk this up to a common syndrome of the aughts where action movies, unable to successfully grapple with 9/11, retreated to fairly innocuous stakes with comforting displays of competence from the powers that be. Funnily enough, it’s the film closest to the September 11th terrorist attacks that tackles the subject with the most grace and remains the most chillingly relevant.

While it was most likely a trivial decision to avoid controversy in 2002, Fears’ decision to position its villains as a global network of Neo-nazis working with disgraced, greedy Russians catapults it to the top of the list of prescient films. As a result, it’s one of the few Ryan movies that transcends its time. At least for now. Taking aim at the way Globalism has paved the way for the rise of fascist extremism and the disastrous (though a bit catastrophic) consequences that entails would not be an uncontroversial decision in 2019. Naturally, in the end, Jack Ryan rushes in to save the day.

In the Spring of 1940 Superman was given a best friend named Jimmy Olsen. Unlike Lois Lane who’d been a part of Superman’s world since his debut in 1938, Jimmy was first conjured into existence for The Adventures of Superman radio show. Olsen’s first appearances were more of a convenience than anything else. Someone for Superman to talk to other than Lois. He made his way to the comic books where he has remained over the years working as either copy boy, cub reporter, or a photographer for the Daily Planet, the employer of Superman’s mild-mannered alter-ego Clark Kent. Olsen became yet another friend in jeopardy for Superman to rescue. As a more marketable audience surrogate for young boys Jimmy quickly grew into Superman’s “pal” with his own run of comics now infamous for their intentionally misleading and uproarious covers. Today Jimmy is more likely to appear as Lois’ foil than Superman’s. However being Superman’s confidant instead of his love interest allowed Jimmy to evolve from mere sidekick. Olsen is a young, naive, rookie who, despite all of that, regularly throws himself into danger to expose wrongdoing or to help Superman. Something made all the more remarkable by the simple fact that Jimmy is merely human.

Superman is often derided in and out of fiction as “the Big Blue Boyscout” for his unwavering kindness and unflinching moral certitude. Similar accusations have been leveled at Ryan, typically by villains who urge him to engage in a little more realpolitik. Thus Ryan is effectively Superman trapped in Jimmy Olsen’s body. Different incarnations of Ryan can be placed along this spectrum; with Ford’s two-fisted statesman as most Superman and Krasinski’s aw, shucks new kid as least Superman. Ryan can never do as he’s told. Ryan must always interrupt an important meeting with a hunch he has. It’s not enough for him to be right, he has to be right immediately and let everyone know it. It’s unclear if Ryan is meant to be naive or principled as it’s always played differently. Ryan can’t sit and wait for back-up. Ryan follows his gut and will follow it to the ends of the Earth. Ryan can’t follow the chain of command. Ryan is the only man for the job. Which, in his defense, is usually what he’s told before his superiors send him off on some absurd field mission against his objections that he’s “just an analyst”.

Despite being stories about Rapprochement between East and West that take a grand view of the ebb and flow of history, and plead for the universality of the human experience, these stories remain American action movies. These films are largely resolved through diplomacy but a special, extra heroic, kind of diplomacy I like to call “Lone Wolf” Diplomacy. There’s always a little bit of Superman in Jack Ryan. He’s ultimately a vigilante. He has to go off book and off the beaten path to affect any real change. And he must risk his life to do so. Even if all he needs to do is talk to the right person. 

But often talking can only take you so far. All the Ryans engage in at least some fisticuffs. All of them come within a hair’s breadth of blowing up. They are, of course, action heroes. These histrionics, however, undermine the whole concept of diplomacy. Jack Ryan doesn’t work for the State Department, he works for the CIA. His diplomacy is back-room agreements between hawks that benefit the United States. It’s convincing people to defect and 11th hour phone calls that forestall disaster. Comforting victories that bely scary truths. The lip service these films pay to Ryan’s beliefs that our “enemies” are people first or to his belief in the letter of the law becomes muddled when it’s pointed in support of imperialism and hegemony are inevitably cast aside when the story dashes forward into its action-packed ticking time-bomb third act. By virtue of being a full television series, Jack Ryan (2018) devotes an enormous amount of time to developing its ostensible villains. It spends time exploring the reciprocal and cyclical nature of armed conflict, and the toll it takes on the people involved. As our world continues to frighten and bewilder it’s my hope that future seasons explore such themes unabashedly. Because it’s one thing to save the world from blowing up, or die trying, but the real work; the work of diplomacy, is to pick up the pieces afterwards or to resolve those differences in the first place. That’s the hero we need today. That’s the hero we’ve always needed.

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