There are few pieces of physical acting more perfect than a moment that lands 20 minutes or so into The Hunt for Red October. CIA analyst Jack Ryan – at this point played by Alec Baldwin – has just improvved his way through a briefing on a Russian submarine commander who has just gone rogue with a new stealth sub. As the meeting descends into chaos, Ryan focuses on the overhead projector (this is not a young movie). The documents left there show something, something only he can see…
As he puts together the clues, the realisation that dawns on his face is so strong you can practically see the lightbulb above his head.
That level of intelligence is what makes Ryan unique. He’s an analyst, a back-room guy whose job is to think a problem to death rather than beat it to a pulp. It’s also the single characteristic that is most commonly thrown out when a new actor is cast in the role.
Harrison Ford’s two-movie turn in the role was defined by, well, him being Harrison Ford and pointing at things angrily. Chris Pine’s most recent turn got close in spots but was ultimately defeated by the fact Kevin Costner’s character was infinitely more interesting. Only Ben Affleck’s Ryan in Sum Of All Fears was allowed to be clever. And, crucially, terrible in combat. The sole one-on-one fight he has largely involves him trying to run away until someone else can save him. That’s an extraordinary thing for a leading man in the chest-thumping Alpha-male world of airport thrillers and it’s the key to what makes Ryan likeable.
The New Jack Ryan…
It’s interesting, then, to hear that John Krasinski has been cast as the character in a 10-episode season for Amazon. Especially as thrillers are increasingly a better fit for TV than film. The Jack Reacher movies are fun but they’ve never quite got inside the internal dialogue of the character. Shooter’s Bob Lee Swagger is far more nuanced across 10 episodes on Netflix than the off-the-gun-rack redneck of the Mark Wahlberg-fronted movie for example. There’s still plenty of room for thrillers on the big screen, the Mission: Impossible series is about to start work on a sixth example of just that, but these days TV is just as valid an option. Better still, it’s an option that allows for – almost encourages – solutions other than punching or exploding. Looked at that way, Ryan’s a logical fit for the small screen.
Especially as Krasinski is the least likely action hero cast in the role since Baldwin. While his most recent work was absolutely in this wheelhouse with 13 Hours, it’s his turn as Jim on The Office that continues to define his career. The amiably schlubby everyman paved the way for not just for compatriots like Chris Pratt in Parks & Recreation but also for a reassessment of sorts in the American TV leading man. Before Jim it wasn’t okay to be average. After Jim, it wasn’t average, it was normal and normal was a badge of honour.
That sort of character is absolutely in lockstep with the sort of Jack we saw back in Hunt For Red October. He’s exceptional not because he’s an extraordinary athlete or a top-flight soldier but because he’s clever and he doesn’t give up. That bloody-minded determination gets him through the helicopter crash in his past, the world’s most terrifying security meeting and even the closing gun battle. Jack doesn’t win because he’s a muscle with vocal chords. He wins because he’s clever.
There’s hope… and there’s concern
So it’s both worrying and promising to hear Krasinski talk about the plan for the series. This is from an interview with Collider:
“Carlton Cuse’s whole plan is we’re gonna shoot it on a movie budget, we’re gonna have the same stunts as movies; it’s gonna feel like a movie but you’re gonna watch it every week. His whole idea was he just felt that two hours wasn’t enough time to tell a Jack Ryan story because Tom Clancy’s books are so detailed and rich, and the character of Jack Ryan, if he has a superpower, it’s his intelligence. So there’s a lot of problem solving and things that take time, and that’s the beauty of the spy genre.”
What gives me cause for concern there is “the same stunts as a movie” line. Ryan’s a character who works best when action is used as terrifying punctuation. Witness the helicopter transfer in Hunt For Red October or the nuclear explosion in Sum Of All Fears. Those are moments of last resort, points where Jack’s intelligence has taken him as far as it can or when it’s not quite taken him there fast enough. Action, in a Jack Ryan story done right, is consequence. Action, in a Jack Ryan story done wrong, is mere spectacle.
The fact, mentioned later in the interview, that the season one villain will be ISIS doesn’t exactly fill me with joy either. Hollywood’s record exploring the Middle East as a region could be described, on its very best day, as awful. The chances of getting something other than the familiar dust, head scarves, visible AK-47s and constantly wailing Adhan isn’t high.
To be fair, thrillers, more than any other genre I’d argue, are defined by their times. I grew up about 30 miles from Northern Ireland in the 1980s so I’ve seen roughly 8000% more IRA-driven thrillers than most people. But even taking the times into account, it’s decades overdue for a series like this to deal with any country in the Middle East with anything other than visual short hand. Throw in villains that may well be cut from the same cloth as those in the risible London Has Fallen and the question becomes simple: is there any good news?
And finally… the heartwarming news
Actually yes. From the same interview:
“The character of Jack Ryan, if he has a superpower, it’s his intelligence. So there’s a lot of problem solving and things that take time, and that’s the beauty of the spy genre.”
Make. Jack. Clever. It’s that simple.
If he’s an actual analyst, as Krasinski seems to state here, than the show is instantly on far better, stronger territory than any post-Baldwin incarnation has been, for two very important reasons. The first is that fundamentally, Jack Ryan isn’t an action hero or, at the very least, isn’t one by choice. When those situations overwhelm him, as they always do, the fact he reacts intellectually to them is what defines him as a hero not how fast he can speed load a Glock 19.
Secondly, it gives the show an opportunity to do something fascinating; present the intelligence services in a positive light. The idea of doing that in what we’re continually told is a “post-truth, post-expert attention economy” is truly extraordinary and, bluntly, needed.
Like I said earlier, every story is formed and framed by the time in which it’s written. I’d argue a series about a morally conflicted, principled and built-from-the-boots-up intelligence agency isn’t just interesting it’s vital. The only question remains whether this series, or the new Corey Hawkins-fronted 24: Legacy (see here), will have the courage to do it.