Watching 1990’s The Hunt for Red October last week, I was blown away: Not only does it stand up, but it’s smarter than almost any blockbuster of recent years. The details about submarine maneuvering, the expertise of the professionals on both sides of the Cold War, and the psychology of the characters are all superbly realized, in service of a terrifically suspenseful plot. Far from being the prime mover behind everything, Jack Ryan (thinly portrayed by a callow Alec Baldwin, who had not yet learned his craft) is merely an important member of a team of maestros.
Amazon Prime’s new series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, on the other hand, is simply a bog-standard War on Terror thriller much like Homeland, with a slightly apologetic, don’t-hate-us-liberals undertone. Having watched the first six of the eight episodes in the first season (which debuts on August 31), I found none of them particularly gripping and doubt I’ll be viewing any more.
In creating a Millennial-friendly Jack Ryan, the showrunners (Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, both veterans of Lost) do everything but give the CIA analyst a hankering for avocado toast. Here he is biking to work with a backpack; there he is advising colleagues on their fantasy baseball lineups. He’s as lovable and sensitive as Jim from The Office. Hang on, that actually is Jim from The Office: the cuddly, clown-nosed John Krasinski, whose generally recessive mien makes him well-suited to play a desk analyst who improbably gets roped into shootouts. That same generally recessive mien makes him ill-suited to seem like he’d actually keep surviving shootouts, however.
Jack is an ex-Marine (and ex–Wall Streeter) who barely survived a catastrophe he won’t discuss that killed many comrades in arms and left him with a back covered in scars. There’s a parallel between him and his gruff new boss, Greer (Wendell Pierce, Bunk on The Wire), who also isn’t eager to chat about the past, which in his case involved unspecified rogue behavior in Karachi that got him busted down several notches to Langley. At the end of episode six, the overarching theme of the show gets spelled out for us in an exchange between the two mutually wary colleagues: “I believe you can make a difference without having to make those kinds of compromises,” Jack says, and Greer says he used to think the same thing until reality intervened.
“I believe you can make a difference,” to me, doesn’t sound a lot like Jack Ryan talking; it’s more like a Bernie Sanders volunteer who majored in Peace Studies at Hampshire College. Jack is supposed to be bookish, but the “difference” he is supposed to be interested in is getting better at putting America’s enemies in the dirt, not making the CIA nicer. In another episode Jack tells a French cop he’s working with that he’s in the agency because he “wants to change things” on the inside and can’t do so on the outside. She replies strangely that “I think you’re a wolf who plays at being a sheep.” I haven’t come across a lot of leading men who are less vulpine than John Krasinski. And if Jack’s got some sort of raging predatory spirit in him, it isn’t evident in the first six hours of the show. He keeps barely surviving the bloodiest disasters, and not only doesn’t he look fired up about jihad, he barely looks worried.
Jack, by tracking bank transfers at Langley, becomes convinced that there is a new bin Laden out there, a Syria-based jihadist named Suleiman (Ali Suliman), who is moving around large amounts of money and rounding up both Shia and Sunni followers. It turns out American acts gave him his deepest motivation; as a boy in Lebanon, he and his brother Ali (Haaz Sleiman) barely survived a 1983 airstrike by U.S. forces that killed their parents, forcing them into foster care in France, where they grew up. It wasn’t till Suleiman was an adult that he was radicalized, by a combination of racist bankers who refused to give him a break in their industry and by police brutality. The show depicts an attack in Paris that kills 300 people but also implies that the French kinda-sorta brought it on themselves by being mean to immigrants. Moral muddles did not much dampen the spirit of the late Tom Clancy, and I picture him demanding the writers of this show report to him immediately for the purpose of allowing him to stub out his cigarette on their foreheads.
Alongside all these glancing hints that the West isn’t free of blame for terror, the worst aspect of Clancy-ism remains (Jack is flawless, omnicompetent, and hence a bit boring — in other words, a Mary Sue), while the best bits are absent. Instead of methodically plunging into detail about what clever means our most dedicated men and women are using to protect us, the plot largely advances on a trail of lucky breaks, coincidences, and moves born of gut instinct. Jack, for instance, figures out that the terrorists communicate via the instant-messaging system on a multiplayer video game, but there is no expertise on display: The game is simply running on a TV in the apartment where he has just missed catching a suspect. A subplot about a Nevada Air Force officer who feels guilty about vaporizing terrorists via drone from 10,000 miles away gives us no technical detail about how these awesome tools work but instead is just the background for a wallow in the officer’s disillusionment. There are almost no specifics about intelligence work or international money laundering, nothing nearly as fascinating as the high-tech chess game of Red October. Instead we get the usual scenes of agents simply pulling up the world’s information on giant screens or sneaking into safe houses with pistols drawn.
I picture Clancy writing his books next to a six-foot stack of copies of Jane’s Defence Weekly. The authors of the Amazon series? Maybe once they watched a CNN special on the War on Terror.