8/10 – A Refreshing, Adrenaline-Packed Reimagining of the Jack Ryan Story
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, Amazon Prime’s latest streaming venture, premiered last Friday with an eight-episode season centered around a Middle-Eastern terrorism threat. Knowing that Clancy’s work and the character of Jack Ryan have been thoroughly explored in film with Harrison Ford (Patriot Games), Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October) and yes, even Chris Pine, I gladly anticipated John Krasinski’s take on the character.
Even though Krasinski is usually referenced as “Jim from The Office,” he gives a new spin on the badassery of the title character. He’s likable, determined, but also young and seemingly reluctant, at first, to accept his new role in the field. Despite some storytelling flaws near the end of this first season, creators Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Graham Roland (Fringe) have produced a refreshing look at the more than 30-year-old franchise.
Cuse and Graham decided to give us a younger version of Ryan with this series. He’s a former Marine turned CIA analyst who sits behind a desk, working to catch “the bad guys” by monitoring money transfers and bank accounts. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take Ryan too long to become the agent – wait – officer (sorry, the movies get it wrong) in the field who helps take down terrorists around the world. Throw in Ryan’s efforts to remain morally sound in a government and world that is so easily corruptible and corrupts, and his innate need to protect innocent people, and you have the formula for the show. To be honest, it reminds me of a lot of the Captain America movies.
Even though Ryan’s the main character, the show doesn’t open with him at Langley. Instead, we’re taken to 1983 Lebanon where two young brothers are caught in a bombing raid by what we can assume is the U.S. military. These two turn out to be the antagonists, Suleiman and his brother, Ali, played by Ali Suliman and Haaz Sleiman, respectively. Suleiman, a man who is shown to be of high intellect and a college graduate, is the leader of a Middle-Eastern terrorist group with one goal – defeating the West.
While it’s made clear in the first few episodes that Suleiman and his brethren are the so-called “bad guys” of the first season, it’s difficult to see them as inherently evil. He and Ali lose everything at an early age – their parents, their home, their culture, and are dropped into foster home after foster home in Europe. They don’t find a sense of belonging within France, except for a community of Muslims that pops up because of immigration. Several different flashbacks are expertly used to show how they developed their current state of mind and hatred for Westerners.
But so often in media “the bad guys” are just that. They are treated as one-note villains and rarely do shows find a good way for the viewer to empathize with the antagonists. The fact that you can empathize with someone who does terrible things doesn’t mean you agree with those terrible things. I don’t condone terrorism, in any form, and I don’t necessarily sympathize, either, but Suleiman’s thinking is understandable and heartbreaking.
Overall, there’s the typical high-adrenaline action in each episode, mentor-mentee banter between Ryan and his boss, James Greer (Wendell Price) and a compelling side story that focuses on the escape of Suleiman’s wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), and her two daughters.
But, one scene stuck out to me the most because of how well it was handled.
Early on in the series, we see that Ryan deals with post-traumatic stress in the form of nightmares and images that can pop up when he’s triggered by a similar situation. They stem from an incident that happened while he was a Marine stationed in Afghanistan. You can infer some of the details, specifically that a young Afghani boy died, but it’s not until his girlfriend, Cathy (Abbie Cornish), stays over one night in his apartment that we hear the full story.
We learn that the Ryan was part of a mission to extract an Afghani family. The little boy was an orphan and not part of the family, but Ryan chose to bring him on the helicopter, too, not realizing that the boy had a grenade. The boy pulled the grenade pin causing the helicopter to crash, severely wounding Ryan and killing everyone else on board. Obviously, Ryan blames himself for making that decision and suffers from knowing what it caused on top of the PTSD.
As someone with family who deals with PTSD after serving overseas, what I appreciate the most about this scene is its normalcy. So often these moments are exaggerated with big swells of music, over-dramatic reactions or forced intimacy between characters, but you don’t see that play out here.
When Cathy sees that Jack can’t sleep and heads downstairs, she follows him and asks him if he’s alright, but she doesn’t pry when he responds with the classic ‘I’m fine.’ When Jack finally admits what he went through, she doesn’t automatically give him a passionate kiss or shows an overbearing desire to protect him in some way. She says two simple words. “Thank you,” as if to say, “I know how hard it was for you to share that with me so I appreciate it and we don’t have to talk about it right now.” She’s there to listen at that moment, nothing more.
So many experiences can cause PTSD, not just military ones, and I truly appreciate the care the creators took with this scene, even if most viewers don’t see it as groundbreaking as I do.
Though the season’s twists and turns were a bit predictable, especially if you are paying attention, and the final episode fell into the usual “stopping the bad guy at all costs” trope, which caused Suleiman’s characterization to suffer just a bit, it’s a solid addition to the Jack Ryan collection.
All eight episodes are currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.