Jack Ryan is back, just in time to take on Donald Trump’s mounting attack on the American intelligence community.
Not literally take it on, of course. But popular culture has in its own way been producing powerfully symbolic counterpoints to some of Trump’s most self-serving and negative depictions of American institutions.
Think of Trump’s “enemy of the people” label for the press versus Steven Spielberg’s feature film “The Post” or Liz Garbus’ Showtime documentary on the New York Times coverage of Trump in “The Fourth Estate.”
“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” the Amazon Studios series that arrives Aug. 31, goes against much of what Trump has been saying and doing since his first week in office to characterize both the CIA and the FBI as institutions that have lost their way because of bad leadership.
“Bad” is defined as not willing to kowtow to Trump and look the other way as the president’s coterie of crooked friends runs the government into a chronic state of chaos. John Brennan, the former CIA director who served under President Barack Obama, for example, is so bad in the president’s view that he had to be stripped of his security clearance last week by Trump himself.
Featuring John Krasinski as the fifth screen incarnation of Baltimore-born author Tom Clancy’s enduring CIA operative, Amazon’s version of the agency is filled with hard-working, decent, smart and patriotic employees — and that includes its leaders for the most part.
At least, that’s the case for the four episodes of the first season that I screened in which we only see as far up the food chain as a dyspeptic but right-thinking deputy director of operations played by Timothy Hutton. Indicative of his decency is the second chance he gives veteran case officer James Greer (Wendell Pierce) with a mid-level desk job at Langley. The mercurial but talented Greer was removed from his last post under a cloud of controversy, but he and the deputy director go back a ways.
As personally unhappy as he seems to be behind a desk, Greer is also a gruff but good guy in his role as Ryan’s supervisor. Lots of demons, but lots of passion and patriotism as well.
As for Ryan, he is Gary-Cooper-in-a-western-movie good: smart, brave, decent and modest to boot about his brains and beauty. This is the young Ryan just starting out in the CIA as a low-level analyst at headquarters after earning a Ph.D. and serving in the Marines.
Thanks to the late author’s Baltimore roots, his iconic character also has plenty of Mid-Atlantic touches, from being an Orioles fan — the late author was part-owner of the team — to taking a woman he is trying to impress to his favorite crab house on their first date. (Part of the series was filmed at Sandy Point State Park in Anne Arundel County.)
I am not crazy about Krasinski. He seems like a one- or two-note actor without much depth. But the one-time member of TV’s “The Office” cast is celebrity red-hot these days thanks to the film “A Quiet Place,” and his presence as star has created quite a pre-debut buzz for the Amazon series.
And Pierce makes up for a lot of what I find missing with Krasinski. Part of that is the script, which gives Pierce’s character nuances and a complicated past to make him far more interesting.
But a bigger part is Pierce, who can bring texture and nuance to a character with the arch of an eyebrow. Remember some of those quizzical looks his Detective Bunk Moreland gave drinking partner Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) in “The Wire”?
As the picture accompanying this column shows, both Ryan and Greer find their way out from behind their desks at Langley and into the field, where they take on terrorism shoulder to shoulder. Pierce’s Greer owns every scene they share, and after a while, I stopped being critical of Kasinski and just enjoyed the action-adventure storytelling of show runners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, of “Lost” fame. They have been telling interviewers how much they respected Clancy’s creation in that adaptation, even though they shifted the battlefield from the Cold War to the post 9/11 war on terrorism.
That’s “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” as entertainment. If you want a thumbnail, showbiz, preview assessment: Solid writing, directing and acting come together to deliver an intelligent re-imagining of an iconic character.
But when you start talking iconic characters, you’re taking culture. And that’s where the real power of this series lives.
The CIA inhabits some very complicated and contradictory space in the American mind.
On the one hand, there is the version of the agency promulgated in popular culture by characters like Ryan, who was created by Clancy in a Post-World-War-II, Cold War climate. This agency is filled with selfless warriors fused from our best national values, and they are out in the world risking their lives to defend those values against our enemies. Call it the God-on-our-side CIA.
On the other hand, in the wake of our ignominious exit from Vietnam, another CIA took root in popular culture. This one is filled with men and women who have lost their moral bearings as they embraced the role of being spies and spiraled deeper and deeper into a mentality where truth really wasn’t truth — to paraphrase Trump’s contentious and increasingly embattled attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
This is the CIA currently being depicted in the Epix series “Berlin Station,” where a case officer mentally and emotionally ravaged by his role in conducting waterboarding and other forms of torture sessions in the wake of 9/11 at a CIA black site starts secretly exposing U.S. agents and methods of espionage from within his current posting at the CIA station in Berlin.
I binged Season 1 last weekend in preparation for this column, and I couldn’t walk away from the screen. Everyone in the CIA station — as well as in the German, Israeli and Russian stations — seems to be operating without a moral compass, just trying to survive the savage politics of their organization and the emotional toll lying and spying have taken on their lives. You can’t tell the double agents from the tripled ones. And it is all perfectly framed by the theme music of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
This is the down-and-dirty version of the CIA This is the CIA that plotted coups and assassinations, tried to rig elections and abandoned many of the South Vietnamese who worked with us when the last U.S. helicopter left the embassy roof in Saigon in 1975.
Some of this CIA could be seen in Showtime’s “Homeland,” but always, Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), wounded as they are, remain on the scene as beacons of duty and righteousness.
Personally, I can’t get enough of the CIA seen in productions like “Berlin Station.” I am currently reading Pete Earley’s “Confessions of a Spy: the Real Story of Aldrich Ames.”
But I expect I am in a minority at this moment in our history, and what many in the culture are looking for is a straightforward, unambiguous American hero they can embrace in a sea of alternative facts, disinformation, flat-out lies and dueling partisan narratives of who we are and where we should be headed as a nation.
Amazon delivers that in “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.” Unlike our president, who used The Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters as a backdrop his first week in office for an airing of complaints against the press and others, Ryan is a character who can righteously stand in front of that wall and honor the men and women represented by stars there who gave their lives in the service of the agency.
I know he’s only fiction, and it’s only streamed TV. But it’s pretty much all we have for now. Those who can, might as well enjoy it.