A CIA agent made famous by one of America’s best-known spy novelists has been tasked with a very special mission — turning around one of streaming TV’s most massive ships.
The new series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” predates the planned pivot by new Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke, in which the streamer will move from boutique TV to a tentpole-heavy strategy. But it fits neatly within that programming philosophy, and its fate will provide an understanding of whether the site’s reboot can be effective. The Jack Ryan series of books and films is beloved, if aging; if it can work on Amazon’s often-vexed service, it bodes well for even more ambitious genre series, such as the upcoming “Lord of the Rings” effort.
The first four episodes of “Jack Ryan” are cause for optimism; the best sign is the casting of John Krasinski, a happily low-key star, in the lead. After the enormous box office success of “A Quiet Place,” of course, Krasinski’s public profile looks a lot different, but his CIA desk jockey here is still amiably close to his cubicle dweller from “The Office.”
The Ryan character has been played on film by imposing presences like Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, but in keeping with recent tradition, where a younger actor steps in (Ben Affleck in 2002, Chris Pine in 2014), Krasinski embodies a Ryan who’s out of his depth. His slight tremulousness, his lack of toxic certitude, serves the story well.
His first moments on-screen establish a refreshing duality: We see the actor, fit and unruffled, completing a rowing workout; then we see him biking to work, during which he inelegantly responds to drivers on the road and very nearly gets run over by someone who winds up being his recently transferred superior, James Greer (a strong Wendell Pierce). The lesson, which “Jack Ryan” restates throughout in different ways: This Ryan is assured of little but his own fallibility; he’s aware of his weaknesses — and is able to play against them — in a manner hardly befitting a screen super-spy.
Putting forward his theory about a potential terror cataclysm being hatched in Yemen, Ryan seems defeated but hardly surprised that he’s ignored. More than any big-screen idol one could imagine in the part, Krasinski has practice and expertise at playing a low man on the totem pole. His Ryan stands out for his welcome lack of swagger.
The agent is eventually heard; a stuffy party at which he’s being pumped for information gets crashed by a military helicopter that sweeps him off to a field operation. This happens to kick off the element of the show that is least successful, a tenuous romantic connection with a glamorous surgeon played by Abbie Cornish. “He’s kind of a type B, type C kind of guy,” she reflects later, stunned that such a meek fellow lives such an evidently interesting life. Though it’s fun to watch Ryan try to keep up his cover story around her, Cornish’s high-flying character has the tendency to emphasize just how simple Ryan is by contrast, more so than is needed.
After all, Krasinski is doing plenty to show us Ryan’s quiet and still nature, often less with a line reading than with a glance, as when, overseas, his eyes catch a prison cell in which some sort of human suffering is unfolding. “Hey, Archie, leave your merit badges at the door,” Greer intones. The sequences in the field often falter when depicting action: The explosions and combat, despite the show’s big budget, can come off confusing and underwhelming. But Ryan, feeling his way through situations he never encountered behind the desk, provides a worthy anchor for our attention.
Best of all, the show knows when to get the character out of the way and concentrate on telling other stories. That the series hinges on a plot emerging from the Middle East, rooted in Islam — at one point, a villain proclaims his goal of building “the greatest Islamic empire” — is likely to catalyze protest, much like the conversation that surrounded “Homeland” for years. While there’s a sometimes-gratuitous focus on the wages of terror, including a genuinely terrifying gas attack on a church, “Jack Ryan” deserves credit for analyzing the ways in which events that seem to originate overseas actually have their roots in American foreign policy.
The show’s first scene depicts two children playing in Lebanon in 1983, their frolicking interrupted by the screaming of fighter jets dropping bombs. Here, potential terrorists don’t act out of a desire for domination or religious fervor but because they’ve been radicalized by wars in which the U.S. has played an active part. We see these stories not through Ryan’s eyes but through the residents’; they’re far more fully realized people than they might be elsewhere.
All of which adds up to an adaptation that’s more than a cosmetic update. Compared with his rivals in the spy game, Ethan Hunt of “Mission: Impossible” and Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan looks downright heroic in his ability to suit himself to a time in which automatic presumption that America is doing the right thing is on the decline. (To its credit, “Homeland” has done similar work, albeit with a vastly more dynamic lead making her own statement about institutional power.) Krasinski’s Ryan is fueled by data and by a willingness to listen, and he has goals in mind greater and more humane than simply ensuring another American century. Asked by a French colleague how he can justify being in the service of the U.S. — itself a strikingly provocative question for a Tom Clancy adaptation — Ryan responds: “I figure it’s better to be on the inside and maybe be able to change something than be on the outside and not be able to change anything.”
The character’s on-screen mission is still unfolding, but it’s not too much to hope that this vision of a super-agent more interested in service than in world-conquering finds its audience on Amazon, and continues to adapt the spy serial for a humbled era.
Drama: Amazon (Eight episodes, four review), Fri., Aug. 31.
Cast: John Krasinski, Wendell Pierce, Abbie Cornish, Ali Suliman, Dina Shihabi.
Executive producers: Carlton Cuse, Graham Roland, John Krasinski, Morten Tyldum, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Daniel Sackheim, Mace Neufeld, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Marcy Ross.