If you’re a fan of the Jack Ryan franchise, you expect suspense, calculated rule-breaking, and a challenging enemy for our hero to outwit. If there happen to be some explosions and a cute girl along the way, even better. You’ll get all these things with Amazon’s just-released Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. John Krasinski keeps Ryan’s trademark brilliance and brashness in the starring role, while still adding something of his own. But when compared to the pre-9/11 Jack Ryan films, this latest reboot tells a bigger story. It’s a story about what America has gained and lost over the last 17 years.
jack ryan is still a hero, but a mortal one
The world has author Tom Clancy to thank for the character of Jack Ryan, a charmingly uppity CIA analyst who just won’t stay in his cubicle. In addition to the best-selling novels, five Jack Ryan films were made – four prior to 9/11: The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), and The Sum of All Fears (2002). Because I take research seriously, I sat and watched all these movies and Amazon’s new series in a span of about 72 hours. On this ill-advised TV binge, the contrast between the new and old Jack Ryan becomes very clear.
Krasinski’s Ryan is a young-ish analyst who spots suspicious bank activity suggesting there’s a new terror kingpin named Suleiman. He’s tasked with convincing his new boss, Jim Greer (Wendell Pierce), that this is a lead worth following. But we learn early on that both characters are carrying serious emotional baggage that drives their work. Viewers have always known that Ryan was in a helicopter crash when he was in the Marines, but his scars – both physical and emotional – are a lot more front-and-center in this iteration. Likewise, we discover that Greer’s new post is a demotion in response to a screw-up in the line of duty. To add to the distress, he’s in the process of a divorce and is a Muslim struggling with his faith.
This Jack Ryan may still have an unassailably gangster resume – he’s a USMC vet, Boston College graduate, PhD in economics, and CIA analyst dating a medical doctor – but he’s no longer just the carefree sum of his parts. He’s a real human being, trying to reconcile his ideals with his imperfect self and surroundings.
the New Jack Ryan Needs a new kind of enemy
In earlier Jack Ryan adaptations, there was a sense of sport about the whole thing. It was a game between two worthy opponents in scenarios that had the flavor of reality, but were mostly far-fetched. The enemy’s motives were half-baked. Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) commandeers a nuclear submarine because his wife died and he wanted to prevent war (?). That’s Jack Ryan’s enemy counterpart in The Hunt for Red October. In The Sum of All Fears, some Nazi revivalist wants to re-pave the way for fascism by pitting Russia and the U.S. against each other. The character himself is so forgettable that I watched it 12 hours ago and I can’t even remember his name.
These one-dimensional, pre-9/11 villains would be no challenge to the new Jack Ryan. This emotionally complex new hero required an emotionally complex villain. He gets that in Lebanese-Syrian militia leader Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Sulaiman). Suleiman is no cut-and-dry, action movie bad guy. He’s a real human being who’s been shaped by the childhood death of his parents, his love for his family, and the stifling racism of growing up as a Muslim in France. In fact, he’s the first character we meet; we see him as a boy in Lebanon singing “The Safety Dance,” and laughing with his brother. The series spends as much time developing Suleiman’s character as it does Ryan’s. We know at one point Suleiman was not an evil man – which makes his crimes all the more hateful.
This three-dimensional portrayal of Suleiman – as well as of his wife Hanin (Dina Shihabi) – are a huge credit to showrunner Graham Roland. Himself a USMC veteran, Roland used his experience serving in Iraq to create realistic portrayals of Jack Ryan’s Arab counterparts.
September 11th brought our worst nightmares to life
Early on a Tuesday morning, almost two decades ago, something changed in the minds of every American. Collapsing buildings destroying entire city blocks were no longer CGI. The highly ideological enemy whom we never saw coming was no longer a plot point. Thousands of innocent Americans dead were no longer on-screen extras. Our worst fears were no longer contained on the movie screen. They became real life.
America had been humbled by Vietnam and Watergate, but victory in the Cold War still preserved our worldview and sense of moral authority. There were bad guys and good guys, communists and capitalists, atheists and the faithful. All human beings yearned for the freedom we have – and we wanted to help them get it.
But the War on Terror would challenge those heartfelt beliefs. A generation of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines would now have to judge in a split second whether a 12-year-old Iraqi boy was an innocent victim, or an enemy combatant. We toppled evil despots so their people could be free, yet chaos and injustice still reigned. The enemy, incapable of competing against our military might, instead turned to murdering civilians.
When America Changed, So Did jack Ryan
Unlike earlier Jack Ryans, Krasinski’s doesn’t live in a stylized land of make believe. Some mystery nuke from Israel isn’t dropped on the Super Bowl by Nazis. Irish Republican Army defectors aren’t chasing Harrison Ford over a personal vendetta. Ryan’s universe is now made of interrogation cells in Syria and sleepless nights in his apartment. Drone pilots cope with their emotional conflict through alcohol and pills. Mothers have to protect 14-year-old daughters from evil, lecherous men. Terrorists attack Paris and murder hundreds of innocent people. If Ryan’s new universe sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the one we live in.
The ambiguity and unpredictability of life is nothing new; the world didn’t change on 9/11. But our perception of it did. Jack Ryan once reigned invincible with stark lines between good and evil. With this latest series, his trademark strength and integrity are mixed with scar tissue and regret. In that way, he’s just like the rest of us.