‘Jack Ryan’ blends action with deeper themes

Photo courtesy of Amazon

All summer, Amazon Studios has teased its television adaptation of Tom Clancy’s best-selling “Jack Ryan” series, and last weekend, the first season became available. Jack Ryan (John Krasinski, “The Office”) is an unassuming, brainy CIA analyst who watches “Jeopardy!,” bikes around D.C. and gets thrown off the deep end into the center of a dangerous, intense hunt for “the new bin Laden.”

The first episode sparingly reveals the corner pieces of this giant jigsaw puzzle. There are two young Lebanese boys whose town gets bombed in 1983. There’s Jack Ryan, who nearly gets run over while biking to work by an angry man in a fancy car.

There’s James Greer, who is the angry man in the fancy car and also Ryan’s new boss. Then there’s a parallel storyline in Syria, where a family lives in a large, armored castle-like home and receives frequent visits from important, threatening people.

The cinematography, which is superb, works with the plot to generate a compelling, mysterious mood. A multitude of high angles situated in the top corners of a room creates a fly-on-the-wall dynamic, as if viewers are spying on the conversations.

Most scenes set in Washington, D.C., are filtered with or dominated by mild blues and greys, creating a cool, methodical feeling. Moreover, the short, unspoken scenes broken up throughout the episode that center on Ryan — rowing at dawn in a t-shirt here, sweating at four in the morning because of nightmares there — give him an elusive quality that adds to the mystery.

As the leading man of this intense action series, John Krasinski is perfect for the hybrid role of an impressive combatant with a calm, almost meek countenance. The unimposing, just-a-lowly-analyst side of Jack Ryan is emphasized throughout the episode, often with humor.

When asked what he is a doctor of, he replies unimpressively, “Economics.” After Greer, Ryan’s boss, describes his past high-stakes work in Pakistan, Ryan is asked what his story is, and he says simply, “I’m an analyst.”

Of course, his unintimidating appearance is meant to undercut and shroud his actually remarkable, winding backstory, of which the first episode shows mere glimpses. Through a couple of flashbacks, viewers learn that Ryan served in a war and now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. Through a couple of cryptic conversations, viewers learn that Ryan used to work on Wall Street but left for unknown reasons.

The real value in the episode, however, is in the subtle themes that do not hinge on the action-packed plot. There is a repeated juxtaposition and struggle between innocence and danger. The best example of this is perhaps the opening scene, when two young brothers are playing and laughing together moments before their home gets blown to pieces. Another scene opens with a Syrian woman, Hanin, running presumably from something with an anxious look on her face, but moments later, it’s shown that she’s simply playing a game of soccer with her children.

Later, a few Syrian children are tracing each other in chalk on the ground, and when they’re ordered to go clean up for dinner, the outlines are left vacant, looking eerily like the morbid outlines that police draw around corpses at crime scenes. These transitions from the light, carefree innocence of childhood to the suddenly somber “real world” speak volumes about the struggles that many children of war or poverty currently experience around the world.

Another idea that the pilot only briefly addresses is the nature of true belief. The potential new terrorist, Suleiman, apparently appeals to both Shia and Sunni Muslims, which has been a strong divide in Islam for centuries. About the belief of Suleiman’s followers, Ryan says, “It’s not about what they’re saying. It’s about how they’re saying it. This is real reverence,” which begs an intriguing philosophical question: how can someone tap into “real reverence”?

Generally, “Jack Ryan” is worth a watch. With its beautiful visuals, endearing leading man, and intricate plot, it fulfills the recipe for great entertainment. And even if you can’t necessarily stomach the intense and sometimes gory action scenes, it also has value for the questions it raises about terrorism—how it starts, how it grows, how it might end—and thus about all of humanity.