As is to be expected from a franchise called Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the basis for Amazon’s latest series is fairly cut and dried. John Krasinski follows in the footsteps of Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and, most recently, Chris Pine to take on the mantle of author Tom Clancy’s famous CIA analyst, a former Marine with a firm moral compass. In this iteration of the character’s story, Ryan goes from desk jockey to field agent after discovering a possible terrorist cell.
For those unfamiliar with the Clancy-verse, Jack Ryan first appeared in Clancy’s 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October (adapted into a movie in 1990, with Baldwin as Ryan), which rooted the character firmly in the middle of the Cold War. Since then, Ryan has bounced all around the globe — with other authors carrying on his journey after Clancy’s death in 2013 — and even become the president of the United States. He’s also remained a fixture of the screen, though filmic adaptations of Clancy’s work have predictably played a little faster and looser with the character’s timeline.
It’s difficult to imagine just how long Amazon’s Jack Ryan would have to run in order to see Krasinski play the president, not to mention the kinds of hijinks it would have to dream up in order to echo Ryan’s on-page broader journey in a contemporary setting. For one season, however, the transplanting a little easier to stomach: Krasinski’s Jack Ryan isn’t dealing with the Soviets — instead, he’s tracking a jihadist, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman).
And yet despite the update, Jack Ryan, created by Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, feels like a throwback, something that would have gone hand in hand with the first season of 24. Or at least, that’s how it feels whenever the camera is fixed on Ryan. When it isn’t, the show takes on an entirely different dimension, one much stranger — and more interesting — than the CIA agent at its center. (That said, Jack Ryan has already been renewed for a second season, with Noomi Rapace and Michael Kelly coming on board.)
As Jack Ryan, John Krasinski doesn’t quite have enough to do
It’s easy to see why Krasinski was cast as Ryan — the character is supposed to be an everyman, an ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary circumstances. That kind of affability is exactly what Krasinski, who’s probably still most famous for playing Jim Halpert on The Office, is known for. But it’s difficult to know what to make of his performance here.
That has less to do with Krasinski and more to do with Jack Ryan’s writing, which flip-flops between playing up Ryan’s normalcy and proving that the character has what it takes to make it in the field. Cuse and Roland seem determined to make the most of Krasinski’s comic skills, which is endearing in some cases — mostly when it comes to his romantic endeavors, as he tries to navigate his crush on epidemiologist Cathy Muller (Abbie Cornish). This lightness of touch also helps make it clear that the show isn’t taking itself too seriously. But it doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the story.
As a result, Ryan remains something of a cipher. He’s also inherently less interesting than the characters around him, including his boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce), and the very terrorists he’s trying to stop. Maybe that’s to be expected, though; the label of “everyman” can be both a blessing and a curse.
Jack Ryan is most successful when it shifts attention away from its star
One of the most impressive things about the show is just how much time and effort it devotes to its supposed villains. Indeed, the series opens with a flashback of Suleiman as a child rather than any introduction to Ryan, and there’s obvious care taken to make the Muslim characters more than stereotypes or straw men.
Though some of the trappings of the story are familiar — the constraints of a patriarchal society upon women, for instance — they still yield some of the most interesting parts of the series. A significant part of the show is given over to Suleiman, particularly as it progresses, mixing his present-day activities with flashbacks to his previous life in France, which easily could have grounded an entirely separate show (and, had I any control over the studio system, would).
Also of note is Suleiman’s wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), who becomes more and more disillusioned with what her husband is doing and the danger it puts their children in, especially their daughters. It already feels notable that Suleiman gets so much screen time — it feels even more so that Hanin does too. It takes a while for her arc to tie to Ryan’s in more than a perfunctory way as he tries to stop Suleiman’s plans, yet it’s a significant part of the series.
The same goes for a storyline following a drone pilot, Victor Polizzi (John Magaro), who struggles with the guilt that comes with possibly bombing innocent people. His arc is similarly removed from Ryan’s comings and goings except through a series of coincidences, and it’s not exactly anything we haven’t seen before, but it has enough dimension that it compels, especially as Polizzi spirals further and further out of control.
When it comes to portraying the war on terror, Jack Ryan doesn’t quite seem to know where to land
The path Ryan is on may be predictable; again, he feels like some sort of Jack Bauer retread, with a fixed foreign threat that he must use his secret agent skills to mitigate. Thankfully, Jack Ryan largely avoids slipping into jingoistic territory — but Suleiman is still the villain, and this is still ultimately a narrative about a white American man (and a soldier, no less) saving the world.
Ryan’s part of the story is a breeze: He’s the good soldier, here to save the day. Sometimes he’ll face some sort of moral dilemma, but it’s never too difficult to guess what the outcome will be. The rest of the series is much thornier, and all the more real for it. It raises the question of whether Ryan is the kind of character who can be transplanted so easily into 2018 without some significant overhauling or retooling.
In the six (out of eight) episodes of Jack Ryan that Amazon sent to critics for review, the show has enough good things going for it to recommend it — or at least parts of it. But as the series continues, it may fall short.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is now streaming on Amazon Prime.