Jack Ryan has undergone an interesting change. Main character of many novels written by Tom Clancy and five Hollywood movies, Ryan was once a very specific kind of hero: brilliant, bookish (he is a history PhD), family orientated, and driven by an ethos of national spirit and straight forward ethics. His worldview was nuanced and insightful, born by wading through stacks of reports to gain insights not always apparent on the surface. Insights that he was willing to triumph and protect in the face of political power. Through Ryan, Clancy’s narratives became a subtle blend of tension, political awareness, and, most importantly, critical reflection on geopolitics. Such reflection, however, is lost on the current adaptation of his characters.

In the latest offering — Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit staring Chris Pine – our character has become an appendage of the state apparatus, rather than critical node within it. Geopolitics, through the lens of Ryan’s exploits, takes on a very different character as a result. In some important ways, the transition to the ‘new’ Jack Ryan is emblematic of how the geopolitical imagery portrayed in pop culture has become somewhat simplified and uncritical.

Clancy’s hero, meant to personify the best parts of the US military and intelligence establishments, was interesting because he was self-aware of the ambiguity and nuance of the situations he found himself in. Those around him often wielded great political or institutional power which far out-weighed his status as lowly analyst. But, his ability to learn, reflect, and empathize, as well as his willingness to buck petty-power politics, lead him to resist their unreasoned positions, which is the source of his heroism. Clear and Present Danger (1994) ends with Ryan, as an acting CIA deputy-director, rebuffing a veiled threat from the American President. In the final scene, Ryan enters a Senate hearing to outline illegal US military activity in Latin America. In the end Ryan behaves honourably, in spite of the toll his involvement will have on his career. More interesting, though, is that the film does not attempt to save the larger foreign policy machine from disgrace. We are left with an uneasy feeling about American power and influence—What if Ryan had not been there?

Ryan was also stunningly human and empathetic. In Patriot Games (1992), Ryan interrupts an IRA-splinter group’s attempt to murder a member of the Royal family in London. When asked later by a confidant why he intervened Ryan’s reply surprises: “It was rage, pure rage.” Drawing on the complex dynamics of anger and retribution which underlie the politics of Northern Ireland at the time, the scene lays bare our hero’s susceptibility to the same emotional drives seen in his villains. In Patriot Games it is Ryan’s cautious, meticulous, and informed channelling of his emotions that drives his heroism. Yet, again, we are left acutely aware that he is similar to his villains on a very basic level. It is his choice of response that sets him apart.

Jack is a different man now; though still brilliant he is now an undercover operative. His economics background allows him an almost forensic ability to discern irregularities in financial transactions, which eventually leads to him uncovering a Russian plot to destroy the Western financial system. In many ways it’s a simpler threat, and a simpler hero. Though his emotions still show through, they are not the foundation for his heroism. Similarly, there is no ambiguity in the actions he is asked to undertake, nor does he question them on a political level.

Though these are the same character in name, the world they inhabit and traits they embody are very different. While one gave us a chance to reflect on geopolitics and the role of the lowly individual within them, the latter is more open to an unquestioning acceptance of things as they are. None of this, of course, is to say that pop culture and Hollywood are losing their critical potential, but it does seem an important trend to watch.

Featured Photo by Chris Drumm.


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