TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In 1984, Tom Clancy's thriller "The Hunt For Red October" introduced the world to CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who went on to be the hero of many novels and films. An updated version of Ryan's story stars John Krasinski as the star of the Amazon Prime Video Series "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan." The second season launches on Friday. Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: 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 Carre are 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 November 1, they've already announced Season 3.
The show stars John Krasinski, who always 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 desk work 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 that 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, Nicolas Reyes, played with soiled silkiness by Spanish actor Jordi Molla.
While Greer sends a secret team of the Orinoco River to see where the cargo is heading, Ryan gets caught in an ambush that kills one of his closest friends. He blames Reyes and vows to make him pay. Here, after the killing, Greer comes to Ryan and reminds him there's a lot more going on than just getting vengeance.
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WENDELL PIERCE: (As James Greer) You OK?
JOHN KRASINSKI: (As Jack Ryan) Reyes did this.
PIERCE: (As James Greer) OK, you listen to me. What we talked about the other night - de Almeida, the rocket launch in the South China Sea - there's something bigger going on here, Jack - bigger than Reyes. And we could both help each other.
KRASINSKI: (As Jack Ryan) This isn't TFAD. We do this, we do this together.
PIERCE: (As James Greer) I can live with that.
POWERS: 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. That's Noomi Rapace, a mysterious woman with a mysterious accent who hops into the sack so quickly with the charmless Ryan that you know she's up to something.
Now, 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 without the leftist ideology or personal texture of its actual president, the malignant schlub Nicolas Maduro, let alone his colorfully hammy predecessor Hugo Chavez. Meanwhile, Reyes' political opponent, played by Columbian actress Cristina Umana, 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 story that has gone out of fashion but still appeals to millions. For starters, Ryan is no superhero. He's a virile everyman who embodies our pop culture's traditional image of white male heroism, one that's often tweaked nowadays but hasn't yet lost its emotional pull. 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.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the Amazon Prime Video Series "Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan," which begins its second season on Friday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Sam Esmail, creator, writer and director of the TV series "Mr. Robot" starring Rami Malek as a hacker with dissociative identity disorder. His attempts to save the world are at risk of destroying it. The fourth and final season is underway on the USA Network. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Mooj Zadie, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "PERPETUAL OPTIMISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.