FYI: Jack Ryan Is A Back-To-Reality Action Drama Unlikely To Thrill
Jack Ryan occupies a strange place in the pantheon of action heroes. Not the suave and seductive James Bond, not the stoic and lawless Jack Reacher, not the patriotic antihero Jack Bauer. Side note: what is it about all these disillusioned ex-military types being called Jack? Jack Ryan’s unique selling point, though it is more or less important depending on the iteration of the story or the casting of the hero, seems to be that he’s just your average guy. A guy with the training of a marine and a day job working for the CIA, but the kind of guy that would much rather be behind a desk than out in the field.
That’s one thing Amazon’s version, an eight-episode miniseries, gets right. Previous holders of the Jack Ryan torch, which include such wildly divergent picks as Chris Pine, Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin, have struggled to convince viewers that if it wasn’t for his deep-rooted sense of duty, Jack would much rather stay home and read a book. John Krasinski, on the other hand, seems every part the unwilling hero, perhaps because at a first glance he’s such an odd choice to play the character. Having recently branched out into horror, it’s still hard to shake the image of him as The Office’s mild-mannered, inoffensive punching bag Jim Halpert, and that same world weary, slightly befuddled expression is his default here too.
Of course, that’s not the only way in which the character has been updated. Originally an expert on Soviet and later Russian organizing techniques, Jack is now an analyst responsible for tracking financial transactions in the Middle East, which are often a tell-tale sign of terrorist activity. When he hears whispers on the grapevine of a new player in the region named Suleiman, he becomes obsessed with the idea that it’s his followers whose finances he is watching, and he doesn’t have to wait long to be proven right. Suleiman, it turns out, is a Lebanese man who grew up in France before making his way to Syria and moving up the ranks of existing terrorist groups before breaking away to form his own.
We bounce between the organization’s major players in France and the US, and Suleiman’s own home life in Syria. The former takes the form of a cat-and-mouse chase in which Jack Ryan is always one step behind, figuring out plans minutes before they happen and arriving seconds too late to prevent deaths on both sides. The latter is a much more intimate and thus engaging story, as Suleiman’s wife attempts to steal her children away from the compound where they live and pass safely into Europe. This plotline’s stakes feel the most real, with Dina Shihabi packing as much as she can into the character of Hanin, and it’s heart-breaking to watch the conflicting emotions of love towards her husband and horror at what he believes in rage across her face. Her lasting trauma and mistrust of those we take to be the “good guys” is the most challenging part of the show, although when her arc ends, most of her personality traits seem to evaporate with it.
There are many more moments where the show flirts with nuance, but it seems uncertain about how far to push it, or what side of the line to eventually come down on. Jack’s boss is a stereotypical hard-line realist with a tragic backstory explaining how he got that way, but he has the added dimension of being a Muslim man. That makes him a natural counterpoint to the Islamic fundamentalists he is committed to tracking down but, beyond a few trite sounding lines about how the terrorists don’t really know God, the richness of this plotline goes mostly unexamined. It doesn’t help that the show emphasizes that he only converted to please his wife and hasn’t practiced in years, and that his actual engagement with his religion is mostly told and not shown.
The show is similarly muddled when it comes to the military. Our primary contact with this side of the story is Victor Polizzi (John Magaro) an aspiring pilot who is relocated to the drone program. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the power he is capable of wielding, and the way in which he is encouraged to just shut up and follow orders. However, though much of his arc revolves around him attempting to find an apologize to the family of a misidentified target, he is willing to drop a missile on a man not on his target list in order to save the day. This is framed as the heroic action despite being a complete abandonment of due process, and him silently accepting a dollar from his co-worker as a reward for his choice leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It is similarly uncomfortable to watch his partner, who uses their omniscient cameras to zoom in on women in the town they are watching and joke approvingly about their sex lives. It’s weird that the show frames this as benign.
That’s not to say that the show has no positives. The visuals are breath-taking, and many of the action sequences are shot with more grace and beauty than they really need to be. Likewise, the plot that unfolds in the final few episodes is genuinely surprising and gripping, even if it ends kind of pithily and with a sentimentality that doesn’t feel earned. Overall though, Jack Ryan is a series that struggles to find its identity in the current political climate, and in trying to be sensationalist, smart and sensitive, manages to exactly none of those things well.