Jack Ryan, Reaganite Hero

Tom Clancy’s character—a former Marine, Wall Street millionaire, reluctant CIA agent, and loyal family man—has long been a symbol of a bygone era.

John Krasinski as Jack Ryan
Amazon Studios

The hallmark of every Jack Ryan dramatization is a scene in which the hero complains that he’s out of his depth. “I’m not field personnel, I’m only an analyst,” Alec Baldwin’s Ryan tells his boss in the first movie outing for the character, the 1990 adaptation of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. “I’m an analyst … I’m not trained for that,” Ben Affleck’s Ryan notes in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears. In the new Amazon series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the ritual protestation comes midway through the first episode, when Ryan (John Krasinski) is told he’s going to Yemen to interrogate a suspect with possible links to terrorism. “I’m an analyst,” Ryan says. “I don’t interrogate people. I write reports.”

“Get on the fuckin’ plane,” his boss (Wendell Pierce) replies.

More than anything else, this perennial declaration of insufficiency defines Jack Ryan, an American hero as characterized by humbleness and family values as James Bond is by priapism and vodka martinis. Ryan continually asserts that all he wants is a simple office job, and yet he keeps being drawn into nefarious plots that threaten the security of the world (a neo-Nazi nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl here, an Irish Republican Army attack on the British royal family there). And because he’s Jack Ryan, he throws on a flak jacket, punches out a Russian assassin or a Colombian drug lord, and saves the day. Again. Reluctantly.

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.

For the 2002 Ryan reboot, The Sum of All Fears, which concerns a terrorist attack on the United States, the Palestinian nationalists of the novel were replaced by an Austrian neo-Nazi seeking to kick-start a new world order, just as the U.S. was turning its national-security focus overwhelmingly to the Middle East after 9/11. Another re-reboot, 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, dealt with Russian espionage and interference in the United States about two years before that same subject became hyper-relevant. The same problem is often faced by Showtime’s Homeland: How can filmmakers and writers keep up with the dizzying pace of the news?

The challenge for Amazon’s Jack Ryan is reinventing a 1980s hero for a 2018 world, while trying to stay topical. Its creators, Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Graham Roland (a writer and former Marine who worked on Prison Break and Fringe, among other shows), have rebooted Ryan yet again, reinventing him as an Afghanistan veteran and full-time CIA analyst who resists the continual lure of Wall Street. (His doctoral degree is now in economics, a subject that fails to impress the soldiers on the ground in Yemen.) He rides a bike to work, has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball, and even occasionally does yoga.

In some ways, Krasinski is the perfect actor to portray a modern Jack Ryan: immensely likable without being slick, accessible but not too vulnerable, smart but not wonky. His Ryan is as honorable as ever (a running joke in the series involves Wendell Pierce’s Jim Greer likening him to Archie or Mr. Peabody or other famous prisses) but with flashes of arrogance. Ryan’s unwavering moral code distinguishes and sometimes alienates him from the people he works with, but it also makes him difficult, even truculent. Krasinski’s charm is what makes the character likable, but Ryan’s flaws are what make him human.

Ryan is, as ever, a desk dweller awkwardly forced into explosive situations, and the most intriguing thing in the first six episodes is that he’s not always up to the task. Jack Ryan is still very much just an analyst. If the cinematic Ryans of the 1990s couldn’t fully sell his incompetence, Krasinski’s version of the character makes a more convincing case that it’s his brains, not his combat skills, that set him apart as an American hero. It’s hopefully a fantasy modern dads (and viewers) can buy into.