Back when John Krasinski was still playing the lanky sweetheart Jim Halpert on the NBC sitcom The Office, he was stuck on the usual path for second-tier TV stars: making a few modest indie films during hiatuses between seasons. Then the show ended, and somewhat out of the blue Krasinski took a leading role in director Michael Bay's controversial two-fisted war story 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
He followed that up by writing, directing, and starring in this year's science-fiction horror smash A Quiet Place (alongside his wife Emily Blunt). But it was probably Krasinski's convincing performance as an ex-Navy SEAL in 13 Hours that helped him land the part of one of literature and cinema's most famous action heroes: Tom Clancy's smart, tough CIA analyst Jack Ryan.
Judging by the early episodes of Amazon's new TV series Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, this character is one Krasinski was born to play. The show's creators Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland have come up with a version of Jack Ryan that's as much "Jim from The Office" as he is a "secret soldier."
Ryan's backstory in Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan comes straight from Clancy's original novels. The character's still an ex-Marine and a cop's son, who took his facility for interpreting arcane facts and figures to Wall Street, before deciding he'd better serve his country by working for the government.
But in Jack Ryan's first episode (which, along with the rest of the 10-episode first season, will be available on Amazon Prime Video this Friday), the hero is introduced as an affable dweeb, who bikes to work, doesn't wear a tie, has an uncanny command of baseball stats, is good at the game show Jeopardy, and keeps his buttoned shirts untucked.
The six episodes of Jack Ryan that Amazon made available in advance to critics nearly all follow a similar pattern. Back in D.C., Ryan and his gruff-but-honorable new boss James Greer (well-played by Wendell Pierce) crunch some numbers and spot some patterns, which soon sends them on a jaunt to some new foreign city, in their hunt for an elusive terrorist leader named Suleiman (Ali Suliman). Inevitably, violence erupts, and Ryan gets to show that under his nerdy exterior, he's still a government-trained lethal weapon.
Cuse is a TV writing-producing lifer, best-known for being a showrunner on Lost, Nash Bridges, and Bates Motel. Roland's an ex-Marine, who's been a writer on Lost, Fringe, and Prison Break. These two know action, they know the military, and — most importantly — they know how to structure a television show. Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan is very easy to watch, balancing longer story arcs with shorter episodic adventures.
Like many of these kinds of series (Homeland, for example, or The Americans), Jack Ryan gets too bogged down in the particulars of bureaucracy, foreign policy, and what spies call "tradecraft." But Krasinski and Pierce have good chemistry, and setting this show toward the beginning of Ryan's CIA career means Cruse and Roland can include more of the personal material from Clancy's novels — including the early stages of Jack's romance with doctor Cathy Muller (played by Abbie Cornish).
Why is this significant? Because "Jack Ryan" as a concept — and "Tom Clancy," for that matter — means different things to different people. Starting this story from scratch allows Cuse, Roland, and Krasinski to create their own version, which they clearly hope will appeal to Clancy's many politically right-wing fans, without alienating potential viewers who associate anything even remotely "Republican" with Donald Trump.
Clancy himself was a complicated figure, politically speaking. He was staunchly conservative and believed fervently in America asserting its power on a global scale. Even after he died in 2013, other writers have kept his brand alive, in international thriller novels that continue advancing his worldview. (In the Jack Ryan novels, the onetime CIA analyst has risen all the way up to president of the United States, where every policy decision he's made has seemed like a direct rebuke to the Obama administration's non-interventionist philosophy.)
Unlike President Trump though, Clancy's collective oeuvre has been openly opposed to authoritarian regimes (especially in the USSR and Russia), while remaining devoted to the good men and women of the CIA whom some modern Republicans decry as "the Deep State."
So Amazon's show has to walk a very narrow tightrope: honoring Clancy's conception of what public service means, while also acknowledging that the author's right-wing fan base these days may prefer government strongmen to government agents. In addition, the TV and movie industry now tries to be more sensitive in depicting of other cultures, avoiding the cliché of the dangerous, unknowable "other."
How does Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan juggle all that? By focusing much more on character than ideology.
The series begins in Lebanon in 1983, showing kids happily listening to the cheesy Men Without Hats hit "Safety Dance" right before their homes get hit with bombs, from a war they didn't start. Throughout these early episodes, Jack Ryan spends a lot of time with innocent bystanders in overseas hotspots. Even in the scenes with Suleiman and his confederates, the storytelling is more detail- and process-oriented than jingoistic. (In one memorable sequence, we see how international criminals use video-game chat-boxes to elude surveillance.)
That said ... there are still explosions, and gunfights, and pulse-pounding chase sequences. It's just that Jack Ryan is also clear-eyed about what the Americans are up to. We see Zero Dark Thirty-level "enhanced interrogation" (conducted by an agent played by John Hoogenakker, a.k.a. the "dilly dilly" king in the Bud Light ads), and a troubled drone pilot (played by John Magaro) prone to reckless personal and professional behavior.
The most important figure here though is — as always — Jack Ryan himself. First depicted on film by Alec Baldwin in 1990's The Hunt for Red October, Ryan has also been played in the past by Harrison Ford (in 1992 and '94), Ben Affleck (in 2002), and Chris Pine (in 2014). Those are four very different actors — even just in terms of their respective ages at the time — starring in action movies spanning four very different presidential administrations. Each has represented a unique kind of can-do good guy: intellectual, grizzled, headstrong, or soulful.
And yet there's never been a Jack Ryan quite like Krasinski. If anything might make newly paranoid conservatives feel more warmly toward the CIA, it could be seeing how much of Ryan's work on this show is just pure wonkery: designing databases, understanding algorithms, and spotting red flags.
A decade ago, Krasinski would've seemed like an unlikely pick to play this character. Now, he almost seems like the only safe choice. His Ryan can shoot his way out of trouble when the situation demands it (which it usually does). But this particular action hero isn't doctrinaire. He doesn't stand for anything but duty and information.
He's a genial everyman, who follows the data and always shows up on time at the office.