As a kid, I loved the Jack Ryan movies because they seemed like they offered more realism than Ryan’s British counterpart over at MI6. While Bond was bedding women and drinking martinis, Ryan was sitting at conference room tables, using Harrison Ford’s trademark pointing gesture or Alec Baldwin’s steely blue eyes to convey the drama in the decidedly explosion free room. Was it realistic that an analyst would hop a flight to Columbia and rent a helicopter using his business card? Well… no, but it seemed a lot more realistic than the sort of stuff Bond was up to in that same era.
The allure of Jack Ryan was never his Bond-like escapades, of course, it was his everyman approach. Despite operating within the shadowy realm of clandestine world saving, he serves as the viewer’s proxy — experiencing awe and disbelief in a measure equal to our own, and then rising to the occasion in the way we like to imagine we might as well. Jack Ryan has never been about realism, he’s been about wish fulfillment; wishing we could rise above our station, that we could make a difference, and to some extent, that we’d finally be recognized for our potential, rather than the desks were relegated to.
Of course, all that means the new Amazon series carrying the name “Jack Ryan” has some pretty big shoes to fill.
The new series plays as an original work, with no need to apprise yourself of the films that came prior (to include the Chris Pine movie that carries the same name). Our new Ryan is played by John Krasisnki: a guy you likely respected in “13 Hours” but still call Jim thanks to his tenure on “The Office.” Krasinski’s infectious likability seems fitting for the barely humble Ryan, who plays the role of subordinate, but steps outside of it thanks to the confidence he’s developed over a lifetime of varied service. Krasinski plays that well, as a man that is thought of as the slacker from a workplace sitcom, but still goes home to Emily Blunt every night. You believe Krasinski would back down when confronted by his superiors, and as he begins to assert himself, his progress feels equally believable.
Of course, not everything about the series is believable, and if you’re active within any defense related spheres on social media, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single person that’s ever worn a uniform that’s not keen to highlight their operational street cred by pointing out what the show gets wrong. Indeed, pivotal parts of the plot lean heavily on stuff that, to be frank, isn’t all that realistic… but since when is that the criteria we use to judge a spy thriller? The very premise of every Jack Ryan story relies on a certain suspension of disbelief — he is, as every iteration of Ryan is keen to remind you, an analyst with a significant back injury, after all. That’s not the sort of guy you lower into submarines from a helicopter to avert nuclear war, but man did it work in “The Hunt for Red October.”
The new Jack Ryan series gets plenty wrong, but the thing is gets right better than most other national security related fiction is how it presents all of the players in the story as distinctly human. The terrorist Ryan pursues isn’t some generic “bad guy.” His story is developed and layered throughout the short series to the point where you occasionally find yourself empathizing with him in the flashback sequences that show how he made his progression from man to monster. Ryan’s boss, James Greer (played by Wendell Pierce) is a seasoned operations officer that’s not afraid to get in and scrap, but even he seems to appreciate the weight of taking lives in a manner that’s usually glossed over in action-heavy dramas.
Amazon’s “Jack Ryan” may not present CIA and military operations as they truly are, but it does present the people that conduct those operations in a way that makes them real. This series has no blindly right action star pummeling his way through the bad guys with limitless confidence and witty one-liners. Instead, it offers a glimpse into the troubled lives of everyday people that find themselves in extraordinary circumstances — and that in itself, is a very realistic way to approach national security in fiction.
Season 1 of “Jack Ryan” isn’t perfect, but it’s a fun ride that builds up to a finale that, while underwhelming, wasn’t weak enough to sour the taste of good television. The series brings entertaining fiction and believable realism to the table in varying measure, but the combination of the two grants us both an appreciation of the immense stakes at play, and a whimsical detachment that will keep you from looking out your own window uncomfortably.
“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” is streaming now on Amazon.