First appearing nearly thirty-five years ago in the pages of The Hunt For Red October, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is arguably the closest thing to an American James Bond. Not only with a highly successful series of novels but also a trilogy of successful films in the early 1990s. Recently, however, the CIA analyst has struggled a bit at cinemas with two reboots not quite hitting it off with audiences. So Jack Ryan has made a move to the small screen with an eponymously titled series as part of Amazon’s Prime Video service. Does this series finally succeed in bringing Tom Clancy’s creation back to screens after twenty plus years of cinematic false starts?
As a novelist, Clancy was known for sprawling plots alongside detailed descriptions of military hardware and high-tech gadgetry. Indeed, as an article in The Atlantic put it after his 2013 death, “He didn’t just tell you about a fighter jet; he let you fly it.” Translating that to the screen has been tricky with some films (The Hunt For Red October and Clear And Present Danger especially) faring better than others (such as 2002’s The Sum Of All Fears where Clancy referred to himself in an audio commentary as the author of “the book the director ignored”). It is telling perhaps that the Prime series has followed in the footsteps of the 2014 reboot Shadow Recruit in taking Clancy’s characters and placing them into an original plot.
Indeed, that reboot with Chris Pine in the role of Jack Ryan was what came to mind when watching the early episodes of this series. Outside of once again bringing together Jack Ryan with love interest Cathy Mueller, the series could well be a continuation of the universe that film started. Jack is still a former Marine and Afghanistan war veteran who survived a helicopter crash who worked on Wall Street for a time before coming to work at the CIA. The backgrounds are more alike than not, at least for much of the season. It’s not until later that it shakes off this ghost of the franchise’s past but, early on at least, it could have been a continuation with a different cast in places.
It also offers a solution to another problem facing anyone adapting Clancy’s novels. The books are, by and large, very much of their era be it the Cold War or the shifting nature of threats in the pre-9/11 world. In writing an ongoing series, Clancy essentially created an alternate universe which would eventually see an American city nuked by terrorists, a war with Japan, and Ryan (who had never held an elected office) become President of the United States all in the 1990s. While die-hard Clancy fans may well have wanted it, the question is if anyone else would tune in for it. As John Krasinski told Larry King two years ago, the makers of the series decided to go for a “ripped from the headlines” approach that would allow them to use the long-form nature of particular streaming television to tell a story in Clancy’s style.
“A Clancy pastiche” would be a good description of the series. Told across eight episodes, Ryan (John Krasinski) is working at the Terror, Finance, and Arms Division (T-FAD) inside the Agency. Tracking payments, he alerts his new superior James Greer (Wendell Pierce) to the likelihood that there’s a new Bin Laden figure on the rise. The season follows Ryan and Greer as they travel across Europe and the Middle East following various leads following the climactic attack on a CIA black site in the first episode. The episode also follows the terrorist mastermind in question (Ali Suliman) and others in his network as they plan attacks against the West while his wife (Dina Shihabi) tries to decide a future for herself and her daughters. The season also takes in strands involving drone pilot Victor Polizzi (John Magaro) as he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his missions as well Ryan’s blossoming romance with Cathy (Abbie Cornish) who deals with infectious diseases. It certainly deals with as many storylines as a Clancy novel and the way they weave together more or less works with one or two exceptions. In that regard, it’s faithful to the spirit of Clancy’s work though, with its tale of tracking a terror network, feeling derivative in a way his novels rarely did.
Where the series is less in Clancy’s vain is in its its use of familiar characters. Outside of Ryan himself, the two major returning characters from the canon (Greer and Cathy) sometimes don’t bear much resemblance to their literary or even previous screen counterparts. Greer, for example, has gone from a Navy Rear Admiral and Jack’s CIA mentor to a career CIA officer in semi-disgrace handed T-FAD as a second chance. One step further removing him from Clancy’s character is his being an adult convert to Islam which (while keeping a “ripped from the headlines” feel) feels odd for a fan of the novels. Cathy, meanwhile, has gone from an ophthalmic surgeon to an infectious disease specialist to the extent of winning an “epidemiologist of the year” award. On the plus side, Cornish fits Clancy’s description of the character well in what is a first for the screen adaptations. Fans of the novels may cringe at some of these moments while viewers new to the material will likely never know the difference.
One thing the series does get right is casting its leading man. John Krasinski may have seemed an odd choice given his being best known as Jim in the American TV adaptation of The Office but, as roles in films such as 13 Hours attest to, he’s a solid dramatic actor. Krasinski, better than either Ben Affleck or Pine, captures Clancy’s analyst thrown into the field well with the mix of intellectual knowledge, the training of a former Marine, and a willingness to speak up and stand by his stances even when it isn’t convenient for others. Indeed, he may fit the description of Clancy’s character better than others who have played Ryan in the past. It might also help that, with eight hours of screen time instead of two, viewers get to know this Ryan better. Either way, Krasinski makes a strong impression as he fills shoes not suitably maintained since Harrison Ford.
At the end of the eight hours, that feeling can sum up the debut season of Jack Ryan on the whole. Though at times feeling derivative of other non-Clancy works dealing in similar territory, it captures the spirit of the late novelist quite well. Nowhere perhaps better than in the characterization and performance of its title character. With a second season announced back in April and preparing to film, for the first time in decades fan might safely be able to say “Welcome back, Jack.”
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