Synopsis – An up-and-coming CIA analyst, Jack Ryan, is thrust into a dangerous field assignment as he uncovers a pattern in terrorist communication that launches him into the center of a dangerous gambit.
Episodes – S01E01 to S01E08
My Take – Generally when an audience member thinks of a spy on the screen, the names of James Bond, Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt are the only ones to pop up. But personally I believe deceased celebrated spy thriller author Tom Clancy‘s character of ostensible every-man CIA analyst Jack Ryan too deserves a mention in the list, mainly as he has been around for some time. Dominating the 90’s action cinema with films such as 1990’s The Hunt For Red October (where Alec Baldwin‘s take on the CIA Analyst boarded a rogue Typhoon-class Russian sub), 1992’s Patriot Games (where Harrison Ford‘s iteration is retired and defends his family from vengeful IRA terrorists), and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger (where Ford‘s Ryan is now CIA Deputy Director, hunting Colombian drug cartels).
However, acclaim fell (not commercially though) with 2002’s The Sum of All Fears which rebooted the series in Ben Affleck‘s image, bouncing him back to a young Analyst status hunting down Neo-Nazi scientists looking to incite nuclear war, and was followed by yet another reboot in the form of director Kenneth Branagh‘s flop 2014 film, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, led by Chris Pine. This time around, Jack Ryan has moved on to the smaller screen with Amazon, which seems to be continuing its effort to move from niche programming to blockbuster productions, a move which also made sense as the Clancy‘s stories seemed better suited on a streaming service.
With the right team of writers, it could also help us better reflect on the complex geopolitical realities of our increasingly chaotic world. And above all that, who isn’t always down for a good spy thriller? While my first thought while watching the trailer for the first time was about wishing for this series to not be yet another one-dimensional West vs. the Jihadist flick, I can safely say this eight-episode first season which has Michael Bay as one of its producers and led by Lost alums Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, is without a doubt easily one of the most thoughtful and compelling political thrillers produced post-9/11, offering nuanced antagonists, some truly impressive set pieces, and an examination of the effects of U.S. foreign policy.
Led by John Krasinski (The Office, A Quiet Place), the fifth actor to play the title character, it took me a few episodes to come to terms with Krasinski’s often goofy and friendly face, but it suited him perfectly once you get to know the character of Ryan, who is a man filled with virtues and morality. A little cliché to be sure, but again, Krasinski manages to make it believable. Think of it as a small-screen Bourne, and you’re getting close to an idea of just how good it actually is.
The story follows Jack Ryan (John Krasinski), a desk-bound diligent low-level CIA analyst, who uncovers a suspicious trail of bank transactions from Lebanon, all tied to the mysterious Mousa Bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman), an Islamic extremist. A red flag that prompts visions of a possible next 9/11, Jack goes out of his comfort zone to convince his initially wary new boss James Greer (Wendell Pierce) that a swift action is required. As improbable as it seems, the two men soon find themselves on route to Yemen, where Ryan, who remains tortured by the helicopter crash that left him temporarily in a wheelchair, is forced to get his hands dirty, both in the desert and back home, and prove his skills are far more than just of an analyst and more of a clever interrogator and an ex-soldier who is still handy in a tight battle scenario.
Greer, himself is struggling with the fact that he has been lumbered with a thankless desk job, but reluctantly grows to trust Ryan’s seemingly otherworldly analyst instincts, and as the two start getting sucked into the game of cat-and-mouse with Suleiman, they start getting the attention of more influential CIA players, including the Deputy Director of Operations (Timothy Hutton), all the while as Ryan finds a spark with a young doctor and infectious disease specialist, Cathy (Abbie Cornish). With Suleiman always one step ahead, could a women in a refugee camp claiming to be his wife be the key to defeating him?
This is a show that knows exactly what it wants to be and is mostly quite successful at it, as it doesn’t overstay its welcome with only eight episodes, which felt absolutely spot on. Right from the opening episode you can tell that they have put all of the right ingredients into this mix. As the show affords a prolonged build-up to any kind of action, developing the characters and the scenario expertly, affording a superbly constructed terrorist threat scenario which expands from Ryan’s analysis of just a few banking records to an assault that has a movie-level quality to it in terms of explosive scale across the course of the entire hour-plus run time. Though this is the lead character’s first trip to the small screen, Amazon and Paramount Television‘s streaming serialization of the character still feels appropriately big.
The complex international story line takes us from Virginia, Lebanon and France during the span of its first four hours, allowing viewers to feel the wide-reaching spread of this terrorist plot. Likewise, when the show is required to get intimate, pilot director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) captures the shadowy, sandy corners of a secret CIA interrogation prison, before director Daniel Sackheim takes us into the cramped Muslim neighborhoods of Paris in Episode Two and lets us brave the wintry chill of the mountains on the Turkish border in Episode Four. There’s an impressive scope that’s delivered into the comfort of your living room that never lets you feel like they lost any of Clancy‘s tantalizing tech grandeur when bringing his favorite CIA man home.
The series also does exceptionally well in its dual job of catering for age-old fans of the Clancy franchise, both in book and film terms, whilst also introducing a whole new audience to the fantastic character. It treads a fine line between remaining faithful to the now-dated but then-topical settings of the books, whilst updating the stories for a modern setting, bringing forward simple ideas of Jack’s unparalleled analytical skills, and uncanny ability to get to know his targets and expounding them into clever little scenes like doing an interrogation, or hacking a phone. Scenes where Jack pipes up in the middle of a high-level intelligence discussion that’s way above his pay grade, and disagrees with the Director of Ops, will ring true for long-time fans, as will the exhibitions of the character’s determination to follow his instincts even when everybody else tells him to stand down.
To win over newer fans, he gets a glorious moment when a helicopter materializes out of nowhere and gives Ryan the chance to be debonair. More than anything else, what struck me about the show is how much of it is built on a worldview defined by what Ryan fears. No one else sees what a danger Suleiman poses, until he forces them to. He’s worried that a bombing may happen at any moment, and usually, his fear is validated. It’s a worldview I understand: It’s hard not to see the appeal of a show about a world full of terrifying things that’s also ready-stocked with a man like Jack Ryan, whose mere presence is a promise that the scary thing will be neutralized. Whilst elements of the terrorist plotting are likely thoroughly familiar to anyone who has watched the whole of 24‘s run, or Homeland or just about any other similarly themed TV or film property, this series devotes more than enough time to the plotting of the ‘villains’ of the piece to give them some shape of a human being with recognizable motivations. For example, Suleiman’s tragic history is revealed in the premiere, and it informs his every move, including some truly horrifying acts of terror.
As Suleiman, he is soulful and charismatic, but he won’t let anything stand in the way of his vengeance, not even his wife Hanin (Dina Shihabi) and their three young children (Karim Zein, Nadia Affolter and Arpy Avyazian). Suleiman’s vendetta against the West is motivated by trauma he experienced in childhood thanks to United States intervention in the Middle East; he’s not evil for evil’s sake. Suleiman is a man who has been at war for the majority of his existence, while dutiful wife Hanin not only stood by his side, but raised their four children since age sixteen. But now, Hanin sees her husband transforming from warrior to fanatic, all while wrestling with her place as a Muslim woman; expected to be a constant source of strength and to tend to Suleiman’s every need, regardless of whether she wants to or not.
It’s a terrific bit of character building, made all the more human by Suliman and Shihabi‘s tremendous performances. Mousa’s brother, Ali (Haaz Sleiman), is humanized as well. He was a gifted artist who died before he could see the Van Gogh paintings he revered. A good portion of their dialogue is in Arabic (with English subtitles), a conscious move to more fully immerse viewers in the world of those who have been victims to regime changes and Western powers’ foreign policies (it’s not just the U.S. that’s being criticized).
Such decisions set this series worlds apart from 24 and similar shows, despite taking place in many of the same locales. The Amazon drama proves that thoughtfulness doesn’t have to come at the cost of action, as the directors offset the more meditative moments with high-octane thrills, including a fraught online conversation to rival some of the tensest typing ever seen on screen. But the subplot involving the drone pilot nicknamed Tombstone aka named Victor (John Magaro) got to me the most. Tombstone’s subplot underlined a few contemporary controversial topics that our media is obsessed with. Hefty topics such as justification of assassinations on foreign soil, accountability of decisions in the military and the usage of drones are weaved into the plot.
While Tombstone’s drunken gambling rampage, ended up with him having a black eye and getting laid, it sure was a mad theatrical portrayal of his inner turmoil. An inner turmoil that compelled him to go the Middle East to buy overpriced eggs from the family of the man he killed. However, the more interesting relationship Jack has is with his new boss Jim Greer. Greer has been re-imagined more thoroughly than Jack, and is now a disgraced and bitter former CIA station chief finding career redemption through the work of this whiz kid he slowly learns to trust. It’s a character to whom Pierce and the writers give a lot of shading, as Greer is also a lapsed Muslim reconnecting with his faith after the end of the marriage for which he converted and Jack Ryan is at its most vibrant in the awkward push-pull between reluctant mentor and wary protégé.
The series is also bolstered by some of the biggest, most intense action scenes on television. A siege by Suleiman’s army on the aforementioned detention center at the end of the pilot is spectacularly violent, filled with rocket launcher-fueled explosions and plenty of large caliber mayhem. A close-quarters shoot out in a Paris apartment during the subsequent installment is tense and bloody, while Ryan’s pursuit of a suspect into the freezing woods during “The Wolf” is splendidly suspenseful.
Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks do affect the series on the whole. For one, it could use more of the tension-cutting humor that the films often deployed. It also doesn’t help that its overarching, terrorist-hunting narrative feels overly familiar and generic, especially when compared to the intriguing complexities of a “Homeland.” Plus Jack’s romance with Cathy, the daughter of Jack’s former Wall Street boss is quite forgettable, mainly due to the lack of chemistry between the two.
However, all is forgotten especially when you look at John Krasinski. Krasinski, who has made a frankly remarkably successful transition from ‘The Office’ to a convincing soldier in Michael Bay‘s underrated ‘13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’, to one-to-watch writer/director with A Quiet Place, is absolutely delightful. Here, he nails Ryan’s boyish idealism and brainy know-how, before engaging the enemy with action figure physicality. Supporting Krasinski is a fairly decent cast with some excellent moments from many of the characters. Wendell Pierce is a joy to watch as James Greer. Even though there are sharp contrasts to James Earl Jones’ take on Greer in the films, it works very well. Abbie Cornish puts in a very believable performance though her character is much underwritten. Ali Suliman makes for a very compelling antagonist in Suleiman, while Dina Shihabi and Haaz Sleiman are exceptionally good. John Magaro is likable. On the whole, ‘Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’ Season 1 is an excellent spy series, that is filled with both emotionally wrenching tension and explosively packed action.
Status – Season 1 (Completed)
Network – Amazon Prime