The Origin Story of a Literary Legend
Better Late Than Never: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Season One
Tom Clancy was unquestionably one of the great American writers of action and espionage, and certainly one of the most commercially successful. For all that, I think most of the attempts to adapt his Jack Ryan novels into films were artistically flawed. Considering that Ryan basically starts out his career as an analyst, and only very gradually it becomes clear how qualified an agent he is, I think most of the actors who have played him have been significantly miscast. Harrison Ford and Chris Pine are superb movie stars, but they have too much charisma to make you believe that could ever fade into the background. And Ben Affleck, by the time he was cast in Sum of All Fears, was definitely the wrong choice.
In that sense, when Amazon chose to adapt Jack Ryan into a series, they made the exact right choice when they cast John Krasinski in the title role. Krasinski has spent his entire career playing variations on the everyman, from The Office to his superstar making work in A Quiet Place. And he has the perfect mixture of lack of ego and buried charisma to play Ryan at this stage in his career. At this point, Ryan is still just an analyst trying to follow money trails. But he’s been in combat in Afghanistan, and still needs medical attention for his back, and is trying to measure his double life at the CIA. He’s trying to date a doctor named Cathy Muller and playing that he’s a normal guy, which blows up in his face when a helicopter picks him up for a mission in the Middle East. He’s early enough in his career that when he tries to convince his superiors that a man named Suleiman is a terrorist on the level of Bin Laden, no one believes him — except a former Section Chief whose career is currently in the crapper named James Greer (Wendell Pierce, doing his best work in quite some time) And though he can clearly handle a gun and has seen combat, he’s still suffering from enough trauma that when given a chance to take down a terrorist from that cell in France, he freezes — and the cost is considerable.
Carlton Cuse, one of the showrunners is no stranger to telling long narratives. But he seems to have a better handle on telling stories when there’s an established universe. Much of the action in Season 1 is focused not just around Suleiman, but around his wife Hanin (Dina Shihabi, in a role that quite understandably was mentioned in Emmy talk last year.) Hanin loves her husband, but she is terrified of what he is doing, and she’s determined to get her family away from him, no matter how great the danger. And we can tell early on just how dangerous he is. At the same time, the series is also very good when it comes to making the extending Clancy-like departures that seemed to lead nowhere, but eventually paid off. In the episode ‘Black 22’, we followed the actions of a drone commander, and watched him get paid a dollar for each kill. We then saw him go to a casino with those same dollar, and then play roulette, and look with disappointment each time he won. He then invited a couple back to his home, knowing they were dangerous, but by the time sequence ended, you could see just how much he wanted to get the blood money off his hands. The storyline eventually interlocked with one involving Hanin that paid off beautifully.
I’ve seen a lot of stories that I have tried to reboot an established franchise on both film and TV, and I can say Jack Ryan is one of the better ones I’ve seen, as well as one with the most potential. They have one of the biggest mythologies to play with (anyone who knows Clancy knows who Greer is, and its rather remarkable to see how they’re willing to play with his background). It’s not one of the best series even on Amazon — not yet — but the service has more confidence in it that it has room for a lot of development. (They gave it a two season order to begin with, and renewed for a third season well before the Season 2 premier in November.) It’s perfect for those who loved the Clancy novels, and it’s ideal for those who haven’t read a word of his. You can’t ask for a better recommendation for a series than that one.
My score: 4.25 stars.