Vanity Fair’s own Sonia Saraiya has weighed and measured ‘Jack Ryan’ on the scales of globalist social justice, and she has found it wanting. The New York writer (not that there’s anything wrong with that) brings the type of review one might expect based on her experience at Variety, Salon, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, and The Rumpus.
Let’s have a look, shall we?
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is hysterical. Hysterical as in histrionic; hysterical as in somehow funny; hysterical as in you wish its team had worked harder to take the temperature of the world around us before sending this highly charged and obscenely blinkered James Bond manqué into the world.
This is New York-ese for, “It’s poopy because it doesn’t flog the U.S. as the bad guys.”
Debuting Friday on Amazon Prime, this show is an updated and serialized adaptation of Clancy’s perennially successful patriotic book series. Jack Ryan, world-saving C.I.A. agent, has been played by a bizarre range of performers over the years, each theoretically embodying a different but overlapping vision of masculine American heroism: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, Chris Pine. The villains, too, have changed, as American foreign policy has swung wildly in the years since the character was introduced in 1984.
The show is based on a patriotic book series (the horror). The title character has been played by a different actors over the years; this is somehow bizarre. The Jack Ryan character is an example of masculine American heroism. Quickly! Everyone clutch your progressive pearls and fall upon your safe space fainting couches!
In this iteration, John Krasinski gets a turn at the action hero, who begins as an unassuming desk-bound analyst plagued by nightmares of combat—then is swiftly dragged into the field when duty calls. Duty, in this case, is embodied by the rise of a militant Lebanese-born Syrian named Suleiman (Ali Suliman), whose charisma and bank statements cause Jack to take notice. The story alternately illuminates Jack’s investigation and Suleiman’s plot, which is seen largely through the perspective of his wife, Hanin (Dina Shihabi), a mother of three who is beginning to have her doubts about what her husband is up to.
See, Sonia can write a paragraph without virtue signaling when she tries.
It seems that in order to get a portrait of a Syrian woman grappling with personal and political crises, one must also slog through the narrative of an unimpressive American man.
Is he an unimpressive American man or an example of masculine American heroism? Or is she saying even unimpressive American men are masculine and heroic? That would be nice, but somehow I doubt it.
If you guess that the show hinges on Jack Ryan rescuing her from her evil terrorist husband, well—spoiler alert!—you would be right. And that says basically everything you need to know: this is a propulsive, enthusiastic, confident action-thriller that makes a glossy, gooey narrative of American generosity and valor.
Is she saying all narratives of American generosity and valor are glossy and gooey, or just this one. If it’s not just this one, has she ever found a narrative of American generosity and valor that she liked?
It lauds Jack Ryan—a true American hero who unfailingly escalates every situation and lacks even basic collaborative skills—while neglecting to even attempt to challenge the narrative of noble American involvement and intervention abroad.
The character lacks even basic collaborative skills! No! NO! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!! It’s like Sonia fails to grasp that this is a hero, not a member of a diversity committee. It’s almost like the character—I don’t know how else to put this—believes in American goodness! Who does that?! Yes. Sarcasm.
Both its protagonist and its plot are based on the foundational, unquestioned notion that American-military might—the best-funded killing infrastructure in human history—is helping to save the world.
Well, let’s see. We saved Europe (twice), South Korea, South Viet Nam, and Saudi Arabia. We prevent NATO allies from becoming Russia’s bitches, we protect Japan from China and North Korea, and we provide financial aid and humanitarian aid across the world. So, maybe that notion makes some sense.
Its other primary story objective is proving that Jack Ryan deserves his white male entitlement—which indicates just how closely American myths of masculinity are intertwined with international dominance.
So, Sonia wants a fictional character to check his fictional white privilege and fictional male privilege. She also believes masculinity is a myth that leads to international dominance. Well, at least she recognizes that the U.S. is a dominant global force. It doesn’t seem like she approves.
From frame to frame, Jack Ryan is an astonishing case study in toxic narratives. I watched it twice, slack-jawed in amazement; I do not know if this is an endorsement or not.
It was a case study in toxic narrative? I’ve seen enough SJW activism to smell the allusion to icky poo-poo toxic masculinity (even though she told us masculinity is a myth).
She was slack jawed as she watched it, not irritated, not bemused, but slack jawed. She was totally stunned to see a work of fiction depicting an American male hero behaving heroically. What kind of TV has she been watching her whole life? How did she get to be a TV critic with so little exposure to American television?
Amazon spent quite a bit of money making Jack Ryan look good, and in the sense that this is intended to be a 10-hour action flick, it succeeds. The production values still skew a little bit network TV—SEAL Team, on CBS, comes to mind. Jack Ryan lacks the richness of a big-budget movie like this summer’s Mission: Impossible — Fallout, or the careful attention to detail of a prestige drama like Showtime’s Homeland. Its appeal lies in a more visceral satisfaction: the guns are hot, the women are sexually available, and the explosions keep coming.
Again, Sonia can write a paragraph without virtue signaling when she tries. That means her glossy and gooey virtue signaling (like snot on a glass doorknob) is a conscious choice.
For the right viewer, that’s enough of a hook to overshadow the fact that the story is attempting, and failing, to yoke together two opposing forces: the lacquer of Hollywood heroism with the inherently nuance-seeking structure of dramatic television. (The credits tell their own story. TV director Daniel Sackheim, who produced one of the most beautiful moments of TV last year in The Leftovers, is an executive producer. So is Michael Bay.)
The New Yorkese phrase, “For the right viewer…” can be translated, “For unsophisticated mouth-breathers and window lickers, like Trump supporters and Joe Six Pack in flyover country…”
Jack’s perfection makes for an inert protagonist; he is presented as a flawless hero from the moment we first see him, moodily rowing down the Potomac before virtuously biking to work.
This technique is used to show that Jack has a history of being physically capable of action and heroics. Without it, he would be a Gary Stu (like the Mary Sue in the ‘The Last Jedi’), a character who suddenly, inexplicable manifests traits with no justification. If your hero is presented as keyboard jockey and magically turns into Captain Toughguy with no explanation, people will not buy in.
Also, would Sonia prefer to see the hero horking down Baconators and jacking off to tentacle porn to make him less perfect? Write your own show, Sonia.
The show makes much of the fact that he doesn’t appear to be an alpha male; love interest Abbie Cornish says, with sideways insinuation, that he’s more of a Type B or Type C guy. But again, right from the start, there are numerous moments where Jack courageously stands up to defend his position in a meeting, takes his shirt off to casually display his pecs, or spins charm in the direction of a seemingly sexually available female—all clearly intended to indicate, quite firmly, that Jack is all man. So the question of his struggle to advance from behind a desk carries no weight, and his arc through the series carries no stakes.
Heroes are a sort of wish fulfillment. As shown by the bell curve, most men are not the Alpha Male Super Action Stud… but we want to be. We would all like to believe that when crisis arose, we too could leap into action and competently dispatch the bad guy and save the girl (who, yes, is sexually available and might actually want to have sex with us after being impressed by our derring-do). Most men are not special forces operators, MMA juggernauts, and suave international super spies… we’re cubicle dwellers. So, Jack’s struggle to advance from behind a desk does carry weight with its intended audience.
As any fan of The Office could tell you, Krasinski’s charm also lies less in heightening drama than in offhandedly defusing it. An internal, contained role suits him better, as indicated by his own cerebral thriller A Quiet Place.
It looks like the casting director disagreed.
But in Jack Ryan, we’re told that Jack Ryan is the rightest, truest, and bravest, over and over again. It’s not only insufferable but boring, because he doesn’t even have the decency to be conflicted.
The title character is fighting terrorism. I don’t want my hero to be conflicted about whether or not he should stop terrorism.
During a tense situation-room scene, where Jack confirms that Hanin has fled Suleiman, his boss (Wendell Pierce, in a cartoonishly macho role) yells out, “There’s a woman,” as if it’s exceptional and unusual for a terrorist to have an intimate life. “It’s her,” Jack replies, curling his left hand into a loose fist—the loose fist of benevolent American imperialism. “Then find her,” says another suit in the room, with urgent, unearned intensity. I have no idea if this scene is intended to be comic or not, but I laughed.
Look! A third paragraph that reads like a review instead of a Victim Studies thesis. Woo hoo!
The show is less funny when Jack Ryan tries to portray extremism—and the quantifiable human toll of the largely unsuccessful war on terror. The show not-so-subtly frames this conflict as a clash of civilizations, one that reaches its climax when four Muslim terrorists attack a Catholic church in Paris as mass is being sung.
Someone should tell Sonia to, “…take the temperature of the world around us…” This is a clash of civilizations. On one side, you have Western values of liberty and equality. On the other side you have the honor killings, female genital mutilation, suicide bombers bucking for afterlife virgins, actual rape culture, actual patriarchy, actual theocracy, and the totalitarianism known as Islam.
American and French forces, mostly comprising white people, team up to take down a global network of Muslims—including both bloodthirsty outlaws in the Syrian desert and mild-mannered doctors in Paris, just in case you thought anywhere, or anyone, could be counted on to be safe.
Would it have been acceptable with German and Spanish forces mostly comprised of white people? Would it have been acceptable with American and French forces displaying equal representation of gender identities, different able-ness, body mass indexes, races, and religions? I think an American counter terrorism agent who was a hemiplegic, morbidly obese, non-binary, Inuit, Sikh might strain the audience’s willful suspension of disbelief.
The only exception is Hanin, sort of: in her attempt to separate herself from her husband’s affairs, she is immediately victimized by him and his colleagues. One tries to rape her, before a (white American male) drone pilot disobeys orders to bomb her attacker.
As we all know Muslims do not have history of violence, including sexual violence. Perish the thought. Ralistically, they would have formed a round-table conference to re-establish their rapport and come to a consensus that satisfied all points of view on their dastardly plot, because that’s how Muslim terrorists roll.
It’s lurid schlock, stoking convenient and uncomplicated ideas about who is the enemy, and who are the good guys. Undoubtedly, that is what makes material like Jack Ryan so marketable.
So when someone attempts to carry out a terrorist attack, the nuanced and sophisticated thing to do is sit back. Maybe those elementary school kids deserved to be shot? Maybe that guy walking to the coffee, and that lady heading home from the grocery store, and that dude going to the park deserved to be stabbed? Maybe those church goers deserve to be destroyed? Maybe they were asking for it? I thought the Left hated victim blaming, didn’t you?
There are scattered moments when Jack Ryan approaches nuance: in scenes that explore the relationship between Suleiman and his brother Ali (Haaz Sleiman), Hanin’s desperation, and the conflicted conscience of that drone pilot (John Magaro). Midseason, the pilot tries to apologize to the bereaved family of a Syrian civilian. It’s a painful scene, and contains poignant moments. But ultimately, what’s striking is the implication that it’s even possible for a person to apologize when he’s anonymously and unjustly killed a man’s son. It’s staggering, how benevolent Jack Ryan believes its soldiers to be. Questioning overseas military intervention isn’t even a partisan issue, necessarily—but Jack Ryan is all in on the fantasy.
It is normal for television to dramatize events—to fudge the dull details of a medical procedure, or heighten the drama of a courtroom. But at this moment in time, Jack Ryan’s anvil-dropping approach is grotesque. With mainstream rhetoric about Muslims being what it is, it’s not possible to engage with storytelling about the “war on terror” as pure entertainment. But Jack Ryan tries to do this anyway. It is grueling to attempt to see any of this as fun, when the subject matter feels so painfully insensitive—even more so than it did years ago, when Homeland debuted. This is a show selling a false narrative that many people would prefer to believe as truth, and it appears to have no qualms about that.
Jack Ryan feels like a machine designed to turn us all into the sort of viewers who disappear smiling down jingoistic Fox News rabbit holes. It assumes that we—Americans, and America—are doing a good job. Talk about a fantasy.
We get it. America bad. Muslims good. That’s nuance! Benevolent U.S. intervention is a fantasy. The threat of genuinely evil terrorists is a fantasy.
I notice that Sonia chooses to live in New York, not Baghdad.
Why doesn’t she move to some benign Muslim country and write a truly nuanced thriller about icky caca Americans who feel conflicted about threatening the peace and tranquility of caliphates? I imagine the experience of living in Kabul or Tehran would be… illuminating.
What do I know? I’m Justa Gaibroh.