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These days, when nearly every film or scripted series wears its political affiliation on its sleeve, it’s fascinating to come across one that seems to defy immediate categorization.
Amazon’s reboot of Jack Ryan would have made headlines even if it hadn’t become the latest partisan Rorschach test. Along with Tom Clancy’s gold-plated name, the online retailer spent massive sums to create a small-screen reboot that puts the production value of 24 and Homeland to shame. But the authentic locations and stunning set design aren’t grabbing attention nearly as much as its muddled political messaging.
In the conservative journal National Review, Kyle Smith says this new Jack Ryan sounds more like “a Bernie Sanders volunteer who majored in Peace Studies at Hampshire College” than a secret agent. Pointing out scenes that suggest the French are to blame for terrorist attacks within their country, he asserts the showrunners do everything to make this Jack Ryan more palatable to left-leaning millennials except “give [him] a hankering for avocado toast.”
On the other side of the aisle, Vanity Fair calls the show a “patriotic nightmare” and chides the plot for being based on the “unquestioned notion that American-military might—the best-funded killing infrastructure in human history—is helping to save the world.” And that’s even before the review gets to the part about Jack Ryan’s “white male entitlement” presenting a “case study in toxic narratives.”
What’s that verse about being neither hot nor cold?
The funny thing is, both critics have a point. Jack Ryan is Tom Clancy’s most famed creation, and no author was ever a greater champion of American interventionism. If Amazon wasn’t comfortable with that, best not pick him up at all. Because, as National Review observes, the tacked-in PC-signaling, like making Ryan’s superior Muslim and having a character voice a stereotypically racist argument against immigration, feels cheap rather than organic. And it isn’t enough to disguise the worldview of the original source material.
To their complaints I’d add that the show works overtime to prove it’s part of the edgy new club of prestige cable and streaming dramas, giving Ryan a far fouler mouth than he ever had in the movies and digressing to a couple of ridiculously unnecessary sex scenes.
It’s a bit of a shame, because whenever the show stops running around half-apologizing for its existence and trying to prove it’s cool kid cred with F-bombs, it actually works. Particularly effective is the family drama that plays out in the terrorist leader’s home and the flashbacks that trace his rise to power.
Also surprisingly effective: John Krasinski’s beta male approach to the character. It’s a markedly different Jack Ryan from the ones that Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, and Chris Pine gave us, and that’s a good thing. It truly is as if Jim Halpert from The Office suddenly ended up behind a desk at the CIA instead of Dunder Mifflin.
No other Jack Ryan has made us smile so much. It almost makes you wish that in the already commissioned Season 2, Dwight Shrute would get a job as a CIA analyst too. Because when the plot finally starts firing around Episode 4, we fully believe good ol’ Jim could rise to the occasion to save the world and still have time for a practical joke or two.