When Ryan made his debut, in Clancy’s 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October, very few people predicted that the character would become such an enduring feature in American culture. Clancy, an insurance agent who wanted to join the military but was rejected because of poor eyesight, published his first book with the Naval Institute Press for a small advance of $5,000. Red October—a knotty Cold War espionage thriller packed with technical detail—sold better than anticipated, even more so when President Ronald Reagan unexpectedly praised the book as “my kind of yarn,” vaulting it onto national best-seller lists.
What exactly was it about Ryan that Reagan found so compelling? There was the breadth of Clancy’s military and foreign-affairs knowledge (the 40th president reportedly used Clancy’s 1986 novel, Red Storm Rising, to prepare for a meeting with the Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev that same year). But there’s also the fact that Ryan is the veritable embodiment of Reaganite values. He’s a former Marine who (in the books) injured his back in a helicopter crash while serving in Greece. He’s a devoted family man, happily married to his wife, Cathy, with whom he eventually has four children. He’s a self-made millionaire who amassed a personal fortune on the stock market before pursuing a doctorate in history at Georgetown University. And, most crucially, he’s personally unimpeachable. No crooked politician can sway him; Jack Ryan bows only to honor and truth.
Ryan, in short, is a Cold War fantasy. If Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way, Jack Ryan stands for capitalism, the family unit, and a strong skepticism when it comes to politicians of any stripe. If Jason Bourne and James Bond offer escapism and liberation from moral strictures, Ryan is wholesome to the core. Clancy novels have long been devoured by men in the dad demographic, and that’s because Tom Clancy (like Jack Ryan) promises that the ordinary can easily be extraordinary. A humble insurance agent can become the best-selling novelist of the 1980s and a part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles. A humble CIA analyst can save the free world so often that—despite his numerous objections—he eventually becomes its leader. For readers, Clancy “didn’t just tell you about a fighter jet; he let you fly it,” an Atlantic writer argued in 2013.
One problem with translating Jack Ryan’s everyman magic to the screen is that history tends to get in the way. By the time The Hunt for Red October hit theaters, the Cold War was basically over. In order to not damage U.S.-Russia relations, the film included a disclaimer before it began saying that the events portrayed (1) had occurred before Gorbachev was elected leader, and (2) were fictional. Although the film was a huge hit, Baldwin was unceremoniously dumped for Harrison Ford for the 1992 Ryan film, Patriot Games, while the director John McTiernan was replaced by Phillip Noyce. In 2001, McTiernan claimed that his and Baldwin’s Irish heritage would have complicated the movie’s plot, in which Ryan goes head-to-head with an Irish Republican Army terrorist, played by Sean Bean.