Streaming on Amazon Prime
Metadata: 2018 | TV-MA | 8 episodes, 1h each
Genre: espionage, thriller, war
Why I watched: I tend to keep up with new war movies and tv since I wrote my Master's thesis on the topic. And I really love spy movies (just biding my time 'til the next James Bond comes out). But also Amazon has been hyping Jack Ryan for, like, ever. It's not as though I could forget to watch it.
You might also like: Watching Jack Ryan first will ease you into the masterful and much harder hitting Showtime original Homeland streaming on Hulu. If you want more Clancy and more Ryan, you could check out The Hunt for Red October (1990) on Hulu, or Clear and Present Danger (1994) on Amazon. If you need something light after all the heavy, do yourself a favor and watch a bit of The Office on Netflix for the 6th time. It's a great palate cleanser and is guaranteed to bring you joy.
Amazon's brand new release, which they've been hyping for months, brings Tom Clancy's character to life in a series for the first time. Traditionally set in the Cold War era, rife with Soviet threats and the danger of nuclear fallout, Clancy's story has been updated in this iteration for the post-9/11 era. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and most recently Chris Pine have all previously played the famous CIA analyst-turned-field agent over the past three decades. After all those cut jaws and serious scowls, it's a lot of fun to see John Krasinski, best known for playing Jim Halpert in The Office, in the role. He's come a long way from pushing paper, literally, at Dunder Mifflin; now he's all muscley and wears bullet proof vests and chases bad guys. He's by far the most approachable of the actors to play Ryan so far, which makes it a little easier to believe that the character just accidentally fell into all this spy stuff.
But I need to square with you: I'm not recommending Jack Ryan because it's great. Honestly, it way undershot its own potential. Amazon clearly spent a ton of money on it, but the writing is lackluster, the characters a little blasé, and the plot simultaneously predictable and improbable. The show way underutilized its talent, too. Beyond being extremely likable and cute, Krasinski brings nothing particularly compelling to the role—but not because he's not a capable actor. I think he just wasn't given that much to work with. Maybe, though, it's due to the flatness of the character himself. Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall posits that Clancy's Ryan is "bland enough that you can plug in anyone, at any time, and it won’t make much difference." Maybe that's true. After all, you could never accuse James Bond of the same thing; the various actors who have played that iconic role over the years have left their own imprint on the character.
Yet despite—and sometimes because of—its weaknesses, I enjoyed the series. The very implausibility of the plot, for example, and the wide-ranging setting and scope of it, make it really entertaining. And, while it's certainly violent and disturbing in many spots, it's not as brutal or gratuitous as many of the shows and movies with similar content these days. It also raises questions—important ones, I think—about the ethics of depicting religious radicalization, drone violence, and modern warfare. Jack Ryan is also the first American fiction show I can recall seeing that takes a stab at depicting the Syrian refugee crisis. Though the show doesn't linger on that for very long, depicting it at all has value, since the popular media has largely ignored that crisis. It also presents a complicated portrait of the enigmatic and charismatic Suleiman (Ali Suliman), the mastermind behind brutal terrorist attacks. Despite having an interesting and complex backstory, his motives remain a bit unclear. But his wife, Hanin, superbly played by Saudi actress Dina Shihabi, is compelling and clear-eyed from start to finish.
Jack Ryan presents a laundry list of every trope you (even just might) expect from a spy "thriller" in the 21st century. It's got drone strikes, interrogation sequences, biological weapons (ebola, among others), sex trafficking, PTSD, and more. I'm not totally sure what to make of this. It makes it difficult to say whether I think the show was indulgently predictable or subtly inventive and metacritical by putting them all together. Either way, it's well worth watching.
Enjoy, and let me know what you think about the series!