Amazon's New Jack Ryan Portrays America's New Weakness

The new Amazon show, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan introduces you to a spy for Millennials, who bikes to his job at the CIA. Not very well, it turns out—spies extraordinaire can dodge gridlock, that old American curse, but not incoming traffic. The writers have him take yoga classes later in the show, but you know it’s coming as soon as you see him. The new Jack Ryan reflects how we have changed stereotypes of manliness: he is a rumpled, wounded, and sensitive man who carries a satchel rather than a briefcase, and rejects the coat-and-tie formality of his Cold Warrior predecessor.

More has changed since John McTiernan’s The Hunt For Red October, the first adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 debut thriller. The film was released in 1990 and we were celebrating our Cold War victory. Political conflict at the international level of the Cold War had been far more intense, but it also ended in a big win without vast numbers dying in the process. This was a different world from the one haunted-by-9/11 new Jack Ryan. Yet in both stories, foreign affairs are seen not directly, but through institutional politics and through ideas about the middle class—ideas about work and manliness.

Jack Ryan, Then and Now

The original Jack Ryan was married with children, for example. That was America back then. He was somewhat elegant and formal; now, he’s a confirmed bachelor, sort of hip and affecting a sort of nerd chic. The new Jack Ryan, played expertly by John Krasinski, who has emerged from his days on The Office as America’s leading contender for everyman hero, is shy around women and you get a sense that he’s more on the gentle than the manly side of gentleman, compared to previous incarnations. But they both have a certain claim to manliness: They served as Marines.

They are also different in terms of work. The old Jack Ryan made money in banking, but then went to do what he loved—history. He wrote a biography of one of the famous commanders of World War II, Admiral William Halsey. He was very impressed with the greatest Soviet admiral of his own times. Only necessity pulled him out of the classroom and into the CIA. The new Jack Ryan shares this belief that politics cannot work without leaders, on whom we should focus our attention. But the new Jack Ryan quit finance, because it was too corrupting—which brings up another part of the Millennial heritage, the crisis of 2008.

You might not think about work, adulthood, and romance as very important in thinking about foreign policy, not even in stories, but you might change your mind after seeing this show. A sensitive portrayal of the man at the center of events is quite an effective way of talking about where America is—after all, an everyman is supposed to be not merely attractive to the audience, but in some ways representative of it.

Family matters. The old Jack Ryan was an adult in every way and that fit a certain view of institutional politics. He was split between his family and a career, but tried to make both work. This relationship between private life, or family, and public life, or work, holds at the highest level, too. Going to work to protect a decent way of life is also what the president is supposed to do, or rather the entire executive branch of government. The best poetry we have is dead serious about the connection between the two. Men need a family to protect and which will also support them in their pursuit of dangerous missions. That was the bargain for American men and that was the view of America that prevailed until recently. So, Americans enjoyed a world of middle class prosperity and family life, albeit one threatened by enemies abroad. Nevertheless, this was a world where the U.S. was protected by oceans and enriched through trade with the world.

Things have changed, grown more insecure. Having no family makes Jack Ryan a loner in an America where there are lots of loners—and the series then introduces all manner of characters seemingly disconnected from authentic relationships. His boss, for example, is a good man who lost his wife and his faith in the process—a subtle, indirect sign to how important women are for the social dimension of faith, participating in churches and other houses of worship. Freedom feels far more confusing at the social level nowadays. The personal loneliness—no more do these men ask each other in friendly ways how the family is doing—is tied up with the view of society as chaotic. The new Jack Ryan reflects this.

Pervasive Insecurity

The mission of the executive branch is the same, fundamentally—protecting America—but the ways the nation has changed since 9/11 make the mission very difficult. The chaos of institutions humbled by terrorists but not made wiser is always on display, too. This is an America dealing with defeat, in a coping mode at this point, trying to prevent the next horrible event.

America has become far more official and formal and somber—security checks occur everywhere and even the culture of leaks shows how many more barriers there are now everywhere, but this has done precious little to clarify the political questions. As a result, fear and anxiety are everywhere with us, which deepens the individualism, or loneliness, since it’s harder to trust anything we hear. What is the purpose of the CIA? How is it supposed to achieve it? What has changed since the failure to prevent 9/11? Where does the CIA stand relative to the executive and to the people? If we have moved war into our cities and into the cities of other countries, what new responsibilities do citizens have now and how is government supposed to help them deal with the new dangers? We don’t quite know.

In our new situation, we’re far more atomistic, far less trusting of our institutions, and far less able to associate. Our political parties are weak and we the people keep throwing them into and out of power, so there is no stability in the legislature. We have divided government which endlessly replays our internal divisions without clarifying them, much less healing them.

One consequence of this is a decline in public trust in government—and the experts’ trust in the public—at the same time technology has made the world more dangerous. The CIA cannot protect us, but we still believe someone is in charge. Since we don’t know what our spies do—since they’ve allowed terrorism to kill thousands of us and operate behind veils of secrecy—and since our government has not alleviated our insecurity through war or technology—what can we think except that the powerful have their own evil schemes instead of our safety on their minds? This expands the temptation to believe in conspiracy theories.

It’s remarkable that the show avoids this very popular brand of insanity. While Jack Ryan sometimes displays qualms about the methods his CIA uses, he is a patriot who doesn’t face crippling doubts about the justice of America’s cause. His problem is institutional sclerosis and the inability to persuade the bureaucracies of national security that they have to change and take certain risks if they are going to be able to identify the incredibly rare and uncertain evidence of terrorist evil afoot.

The Human Drama

The show puts technology in its place: it depicts it helping rather than replacing human judgment in espionage, and in this, Jack Ryan hints at the approach taken by corporations like Peter Thiel’s Palantir. Today’s reality still hinges on the divide between the SIGINT (signal intelligence)—which is all machines, at the NSA, and which is run by generals—the CIA, which is all HUMINT (human intelligence, just not a lot of it), and which is run by bureaucratic spies. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan suggests these resources should be put together, which is what Palantir does, but it is poor at dramatizing the role geeks play, so to speak, in stopping terrorism.

The dramatization here, however, does achieve something impressive in connecting psychology, personal relations, work, and institutional relations, and stretching them all the way to foreign affairs proper, where people might have to kill each other and war or chaos could start at any point, without our predicting, much less preventing it. It’s not just 9/11, after all, it’s also the fraying of our NATO alliance, the knowledge that European nations are also endangered by Islamic terrorists and have no better ideas about how to solve the problem than we do, and, finally, our failure to define and achieve the victory in our Middle Eastern wars that would help us make and keep peace.

The show evokes three things about our society that we don’t usually want to see. First, although we thought we were going to win, Islamist terrorists still threaten Americans around the world. The show’s great drama comes out of the baffled awareness that the world’s lone superpower isn’t all that powerful. Secondly, we are confused about who the enemy really is—we tend to prefer abstract nouns that don’t commit us to any political judgments—and we are tempted to personify evil in mythical characters, as though terrorism started and ended on 9/11. By contrast, the show displays Islamists with plausible motives and wide-ranging means of operating in our midst. Thirdly, we therefore no longer have clarity about who we are and how to stick together. Terrorism here reveals the weakness of individualism in America, just like the Cold War in previous Jack Ryan stories revealed the inherent strengths of technology and patriotism in the previous generation.

What’s innovative is the moral collapse portrayed in this drama. The institutions of Washington D.C. no longer command respect and are not seen as authoritative. It’s a clumsy struggle in the dark to make them work, the story suggests. Well-meaning people, whatever their credentials, are just not up to the task. Unfortunately, Jack Ryan doesn’t have much to offer by way of clarity about the way ahead. Our problems don’t even have story-bound fantastic solutions—and the series depicts America’s enemies defeated without any sense that the threat is really over. But at its best, it shows what’s wrong with how we deal with foreign affairs and how it starts in our own declining sense of citizenship and social trust.