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'Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan' Offers A Dose Of Retro Heroism In Its 2nd Season

John Krasinski is a smarter-than-thou Jack Ryan — a more righteous than lovable ex-marine who works as a financial analyst for the CIA.
Jonny Cournoyer
Amazon Studios

Spy stories vary hugely in their respect for the real world. James Bond movies are timelessly cartoonish, with villains who make their headquarters inside disused volcanoes. In contrast, the novels of John le Carréare steeped in current events, like his new one, Agent Running in the Field , which tackles Brexit, the Trump Presidency and Russian attempts to sow discord in Europe.

Lying halfway between them, you find Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, the Amazon TV series that retools Clancy's hero for something vaguely resembling the present. Although the show gets vastly less media coverage than hip dramas like Succession, it also gets vastly more viewers. In fact, this entertaining show has proved to be Prime Video's biggest hit, so popular that, even before season 2 drops on Nov. 1, they've already announced season 3.

The show stars John Krasinski, who exudes a slight air of smugness. This makes him perfect to play the smarter-than-thou Jack Ryan, a more righteous than lovable ex-marine who works as a financial analyst for the CIA. In season 1, Ryan's deskwork led him into the field where he tracked down an Islamic terrorist under the leadership of his irascible boss, James Greer. He's played by Wendell Pierce, an actor so enjoyable I would happily watch footage of him simply walking down the street.

Ryan moves deeper into full-fledged secret agent mode in the new season after he and Greer uncover intel that a shipload of menacing cargo has docked in Caracas. They jet down to Venezuela, a failing nation run by a pseudo-populist tyrant, Nicolás Reyes, played with soiled silkiness by Spanish actor Jordi Mollà. While Greer sends a secret team up the Orinoco River to see where the cargo's heading, Ryan gets caught in an ambush that kills one of his closest friends. He blames Reyes and vows to make him pay.

As the action jets from Moscow to Caracas to London — the show looks expensive — Ryan and Greer wind up involved with a German hitman, security police, South African mercenaries, Reyes' idealistic election opponent, plus sly Harriet Baumann (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious woman with a mysterious accent who hops into bed so quickly with the charmless Ryan that you know she's up to something.

Venezuela has been in the news a lot in recent years, but season 2's story isn't so much ripped from the headlines as ripped from a casual glance at the headlines. President Reyes is merely a generic baddie, and his political opponent, played by Colombian actress Cristina Umaña, is given no psychic or political weight: She's simply noble. You won't learn anything about Venezuela from this series.

But you will be plunged into the kind of old-fashioned story that still appeals to millions. For starters, Ryan is no super-hero. He's a virile everyman who embodies an outdated image of white-male heroism.

Uninfected by irony, Ryan is a patriot and a stand-up guy. If a comrade is left behind in battle, he'll go back to save him; if you kill his friend, you will regret it. To protect America, he will defy his bosses but not baseline decency. He doesn't torture suspects or assassinate leaders, even when he wants to.

Ryan's CIA isn't part of some deep-state conspiracy against President Trump or the right. No, he and his comrades work for a CIA that for decades inspired paranoia on the left. To promote American ideals — and, of course, American interests — the agency feels free to send armed operatives into Venezuela and to help out the political opposition to President Reyes. Filled with good, sane people — no Jack Bauers or Carrie Mathisons here — the CIA is shown to be an honorable enterprise.

When I tell my friends that I've whooshed through both seasons, most of them are startled that I could enjoy anything so retro. Yet I do, in part because it's so retro. Offering respite from today's political stridency, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan serves up something reassuringly nostalgic: a conservatism that isn't just quietly confident, but unabashedly idealistic.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.