The new Amazon series Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is the first TV show to film at CIA headquarters for several years, in keeping with the Agency’s long-time support for adaptations of Clancy’s work. In this episode I review and analyse the series, including the inevitable references to 9/11, the hallmarks of CIA input on the script and the question of whether the series acts as revenge fantasy for Islamist terrorists.
We have discussed before how close Tom Clancy was to the CIA, as well as other parts of the American security state, so we have to approach this new series in that context. In many respects Jack Ryan is the American James Bond, a fictional symbol of US intelligence in the same way Bond is a symbol of British intelligence. Both act as totems to attract followers and intimidate rivals.
Like Bond, Jack Ryan has been rebooted several times despite only being created in the 1980s. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine have all played the character, and now John Krasinski makes it five different actors. The CIA supported Patriot Games in 1992, and Sum of all Fears in 2002. However they had nothing to do with the film of Hunt for Red October, I’ve read that they rejected a request for support on Clear and Present Danger, and according to FBI documents they rejected Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
In keeping with this alternating pattern they did support Jack Ryan the series, as is obvious from simply watching the show. The CIA logo is prominent throughout, there are several aerial shots of CIA headquarters, and a few minutes into the first episode we see Ryan arriving at Langley, filmed at the real CIA campus. This is the first time in several years that a production has been granted that privilege – showing their man cycling to work, parking his bike in the bike rack outside the original headquarters, going up the steps, through the door, over the CIA seal on the floor, past the wall with the stars on it commemorating CIA officers who were killed in action, and through the security barriers. This same basic sequence of shots appears in Scorpio, Patriot Games, Argo and several other productions.
We can also look to an interview with Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, the showrunners, where they talk about consulting with a former CIA officer David Chasteen while writing the script. Chasteen has posted on social media talking about parts of the show were based on his real-life experiences working for the Agency, including cycling to work. Carlton Cuse added:
The CIA asked to read the scripts before giving us permission to shoot on their campus, but they did not give us any notes or ask for any changes. The story we are telling is ours and was not shaped or edited in any way by the agency.
That phrase, ‘the story we are telling is ours and was not shaped or edited in any way by the agency’ sounds like something written by a PR agent. When asked if they recruited advisers from the agency itself Graham Roland added:
We had a liaison named Kali Caldwell who, at the time, was working for the CIA in their public relations department, but she had also been an analyst and worked on operations and targets all over the world. She gave us a tour of the Langley campus, and introduced us to several analysts and case officers whose names we cannot mention that gave us and our two principal actors—John Krasinski and Wendell Pierce—insight into what it’s like to work for the CIA and the “culture of sacrifice” that has been fostered amongst those who work in intelligence, etc.
Kali Caldwell was one of the CIA’s entertainment liaison officers circa 2014-2015. She has now left the Agency and I’m not sure who replaced her. The interviewer then asked ‘What were their top tips when they first read the script?’ and Roland replied:
No cell phones inside CIA HQ. It’s not allowed and every show or movie gets this wrong. And people who work for the CIA are NOT called agents. Agents work at the FBI. CIA employees are analysts, case officers, assets, or operators, but NEVER agents.
So, Cuse says the CIA had no input on the script, but I think that’s simply untrue, for the following reasons. (1) If they made no changes then what was the point of the script review? (2) We know the CIA has made changes to scripts before. (3) The writers and stars toured Langley, just like Claire Danes and Ben Affleck and the rest, indicative of a fully-CIA supported production. (4) Roland said they did have input on things like CIA officers not being called agents, and not allowing mobile phones inside headquarters. If they had input on that then they likely had input on other things. (5) The series has a lot of the same themes, even the same cinematography, as films and TV series where we know the CIA had a lot of input. And (6) Why wouldn’t the CIA rewrite some parts of the script to suit their agendas, given that they could? If Cuse’s claim is true then it seems like a missed opportunity for the Agency.
Furthermore, this is an Amazon-produced show that went straight to series, with no pilot being filmed, and they renewed it before the first season was even released. Given Amazon’s connections with the CIA, and the CIA’s connections to Clancy and to cinematic adaptations of his books, and that the CIA relaxed their rules about not filming at Langley to help boost the profile of this new series, a quite different picture emerges.
Before we get into the series itself, I will say that I enjoyed it, more so than Condor or Deep State or any other new spy series in the last couple of years. I think John Krasinki makes a convincing Marine-turned-CIA analyst who gets drawn out of the office and into the field. I’ve always loved Wendell Pierce and his relationship with Krasinski is believable, and reminiscent of when James Earl Jones and Harrison Ford were in these roles. I liked how they structured the story like a Clancy novel, where it isn’t all about Ryan himself, you get to know the antagonists in just as much detail and depth as the protagonists. Clancy did this very well and while his political bias always shone through – as it does in this series – the story sometimes goes out of its way to make sure you understand why the bad guys are doing what they’re doing. It’s more realistic, and more enjoyable.
Familiar Themes, Familiar Memes
Anyone who has read Tom Clancy novels or seen any of the previous Jack Ryan films will know what to expect – Ryan is an analyst, a very intelligent guy, who has to leave behind the safety of his desk and his office and go into the field in order to avert a crisis. It’s basically the same story as Condor, but without the rogue CIA faction trying to hunt him down.
In Jack Ryan: The Series he is monitoring various banking transactions and discovers a new terrorist mastermind who goes by the name Suleiman. Meanwhile, Wendell Pierce’s character Jim Greer is the new head of the unit Ryan works in, having been recalled to Langley after some mysterious problem while he was head of station in Karachi. So Ryan goes to Greer to try to persuade him of the importance of freezing Suleiman’s bank accounts.
This is where our whole plot begins, and just like in a number of other CIA-sponsored productions it’s all about the fear of another 9/11. Condor, Homeland, The Recruit, Dying of the Light – all of them mention 9/11 in the opening episode or opening act of the film. It’s clearly a preoccupation for both the CIA and for writers working with the CIA. Whether that’s a kind of collective, institutional PTSD or a guilty conscience, or both, I’ll leave to you to judge for yourselves.
But the logic is absurd. The argument that 9/11 only cost half a million dollars and therefore a terrorist with $9 million could do something much bigger is simply not true, and any CIA analyst would tell you that. Bin Laden had a lot more than half a million dollars – it isn’t lack of funds that prevented him from carrying out bigger, more devastating terrorist attacks. Likewise, the notion that the CIA only heard about Bin Laden for the first time in the late 1990s is also simply untrue. So this piece of dialogue is pure propaganda, and this scene is a hallmark of CIA input on the script.
Later in the season, after a devastating terrorist attack in Paris, Ryan is sat around blaming himself so Greer tells him a story to try to give him some perspective. Like I say, you can interpret this dialogue in a number of ways so I’m not going to push my own opinion, though you can probably guess what it is.
The CIA were not the only government agency to support Jack Ryan: The Series. Halfway through the first episode, Ryan is at a garden party and a Coast Guard helicopter lands and whisks him away. There are plenty of shots of the Coast Guard logo, to help with branding, and the whole thing is done in a very professional but dramatic manner. The Coast Guard are even credited at the end of the episode.
Then there’s the military involvement. Ryan is taken to an airfield that looks like a military base, there appear to be military planes in the background. Greer and Ryan are needed in Yemen – no coincidence they chose that country – to help interrogate two captured militants being held at a CIA black site. The caption on screen even identifies it as a CIA black site, helping to normalise that concept. Ryan and Greer arrive on a US Army helicopter, and there are Army vehicles and personnel everywhere.
In quite a clever twist, one of the two men is actually the guy – Suliman – that Ryan is looking for, but he doesn’t realise it at the time. Suleiman’s brother pretends to be one of a group of dead bodies, which are sold to the base by some guys in trucks who say the bodies are those of militants who died in a drone strike. The base is attacked by Suliman’s men, who crash a suicide truck-bomb into the main gate, sparking a massive firefight. Suliman’s brother sneaks out of the trailer where the bodies are left, finds Suliman and helps him escape.
It is unusual that the DOD would agree to have the Army portrayed in this way – paying money for the dead bodies of supposed militants – but it does actually happen. I did try to get some documents from the Army about their input on this episode to try to find out if they had any objections to this part of the story. They said they couldn’t find any, begging the question of where all these military vehicles came from if not the Army. Aside from this problematic story point, their men are depicted as brave and competent, and it is necessary for the story because it’s how Suleiman’s brother gets into the base. So maybe this is one of those occasions where they made a little compromise in the name of supporting a show whose overall depiction of the military is very positive.
The Drone Pilot and Moral Quandaries
Where things get very interesting is with Victor, a drone pilot for the US Air Force. Alongside the Army, the Coast Guard and the CIA, the Air Force also supported Jack Ryan: The Series, and there are numerous shots of Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. Creech is the base for a lot of drone pilots, and has been the target of several anti-drone protests. While the DOD are not credited on any episode, it’s clear that they supported this production.
Victor is introduced working out of a trailer on the base, piloting drones over the Middle East. He is evidently having a crisis of conscience about his work, and we see him fire on a truck supposedly carrying a target in Syria, and then his partner (a black female drone pilot, just to be politically correct about this genocide) gives him a dollar bill. When he gets home he writes ‘107’ on it and pins it to the wall, and we see he has 107 one dollar bills marking 107 drone strikes. He takes the money to a casino in Las Vegas, and quickly turns it into nearly $30,000 playing roulette.
Victor gets drunk and is taken home by a couple from the roulette table. The woman has sex with him while her husband watches, and then the husband beats the crap out of Victor. I’m guessing this is all supposed to be about his descent into moral oblivion. Back at work his partner tells him that the previous strike was a mistake, that the target they hit was an innocent person. This causes Victor’s depression to deepen, leading to a confrontation between him and his partner in a diner in Las Vegas.
This storyline is completed when Victor goes to Syria and finds the family of the man he killed, giving them a bag full of money, presumably the money he won at roulette. Again, I’m a little surprised that the Air Force supported a production containing this storyline, but then they also supported Good Kill, which asks some pertinent moral questions about drone warfare. As with the Army, I am trying to get information out of the Air Force on the support they granted and any comments or notes on the script. I may have to revisit this series in a later episode or articles.
Ryan himself also undergoes some moments of moral confusion, and while tracking Suleiman in France a French intelligence officer asks him how he can work for the CIA, knowing all the things they do. Ryan defends this by saying he’s trying to do good from the inside, to which the Frenchwoman responds by telling him he is a wolf pretending to be a sheep.
As the story progresses Suleiman’s wife Hanin escapes from his stronghold with their two daughters. She is pursued by Suleiman’s men, one of whom tries to rape her when he captures her and the children. But Victor, who is watching all this unfold via cameras on the drone, disobeys orders and fires, killing the man and saving Hanin. We then see them travel to the Turkish border, into a refugee camp and onto the people smuggling trail to try to get into Europe.
At one point Hanin tells an aid worker at the refugee camp that she is Suleiman’s wife. It turns out that the aid worker is actually an undercover CIA officer, so Ryan and Greer have to fly out to Turkey to track down Hanin and her children. Without getting into all the details this means getting involved with a drug smuggler with contacts in the people smuggling networks. He is played by Numan Acar who you may remember as Haissam Haqqani in series four of Homeland. I bring this up because I like the actor and because the real-life Jalaludin Haqqani died recently.
Throughout the series there are lots of rumours and speculation about why Greer was sent home from Karachi, with one person saying he threw someone out of a window, another saying he told snipers to dip their bullets in pigs blood so the targets wouldn’t go to heaven. Just like the real world story about bullets dipped in pigs blood this turns out to not be true, and after they find and rescue Hanin and her children, Greer tells Ryan what really happened in Karachi.
This is where CIA and DOD-sponsored products differ quite significantly. While Jack Ryan is clearly intended to be a piece of positive PR for the Agency, you can’t avoid these sorts of questions because they’ve been part of the public image of the CIA for as long as they’ve had a public image. While the DOD usually censors anything they find problematic, leaving their cinematic image an almost exclusively positive one, the CIA take a different approach. Remember, in this scene Greer is the wise old hand, and Ryan is the youngster, much like Saul and Carrie in Homeland. Greer is saying that there’s no version of the CIA without moral compromise, which is actually true, I think.
The problem is how far do you go? If you compromise enough to bribe a guy who trafficks in sex slaves in order to find a source of information, what’s next? Once you compromise on your morals you have draw new lines dictating what you won’t do, but then you’ll find yourself in a position where that is tested, and having already compromised once, you’ll probably compromise again. This is how you get well-meaning people running black sites where kidnap victims are tortured in the name of gathering intelligence. Or at least turning a blind eye to their friends and colleagues doing that.
But apparently the writers came up with all of this themselves, with no input from the CIA so it must be a total coincidence that this is the exact same thing we’ve heard in at least a dozen CIA-sponsored productions. This is entirely the story the writers wanted to tell, and we know that because they told us that themselves. Even though they offered that denial without being asked and then the other writer immediately contradicted it.
What’s especially strange is that at the end of each episode the CIA aren’t credited, but there is a credit saying ‘The Central Intelligence Agency has not approved or endorsed the contents of this production’. Well, we know they reviewed the script and either did or didn’t make changes, which surely counts as an endorsement and approval of the script. They also allowed the production to film at their headquarters, which is an endorsement and approval of the content, or at least some kind of support for it. So the CIA are flat out lying here, and the only reason to lie is to try to cover something up. The only logical thing they could be covering up is that they actually had quite a lot of input on the script, hence both them and one of the writers issuing unconvincing denials. It’s doublespeak, and not very good doublespeak at that.
Revenge Fantasy for Islamists?
Another aspect to Jack Ryan: The Series that interests me is what one might call Islamist revenge fantasy. In the 2000s most spy series were based around the episodic structure of the villain of the week or crisis of the week. Even Spooks, the most sophisticated spy series of that decade, started out with this same episodic structure. While there is some ongoing drama, usually in the personal lives of our MI5 protagonists, none of the antagonists last more than an episode or two.
As the series progressed it became more of a serial, with bad guys lasting an entire season and plot lines unfolding over multiple seasons. Then came Homeland, which redefined the spy TV genre in several ways, not just by having a female protagonist but more importantly by having a long-running antagonist, Brody. He is not discovered and eliminated within an episode or two, so we get to know him, his family, his life and motivations. He’s more of an anti-hero than a villain.
It’s the same in Jack Ryan with Suleiman, as we learn in the opening episode how his family home in Lebanon was bombed when he was a child, wounding him and his brother and killing others. This is why they embark on a terrorist campaign, which causes Suleiman’s wife to leave him, triggering most of the events in the second half of the season. If we compare this to, say, the villains in True Lies or Rules of Engagement, whose motives are never explained let alone in a sympathetic fashion, we see that there’s a range of portraits and that not all Muslim terrorists on TV are equally generic and shallow.
Suleiman and his gang are a pretty nasty bunch, particularly when they carry out a sarin gas attack on a church in Paris, so like in Tom Clancy’s novels the moral lines are still fairly clear, at least in terms who are the bad guys. But the bad guys are still human, they aren’t just soulless Soviet or Islamist automatons.
Indeed, during the episodes set in France Ryan is told by a French intelligence officer that in America you can have African Americans, Italian Americans, Muslim Americans but in France you’re either French or you are not. Meanwhile Greer, who it turns out converted to Islam some years earlier, is lectured by a bigoted French police officer.
These scenes did draw some criticism and objections – but not from Muslims. French TV critics complained that these were ‘dangerously caricatural’, which may in fact be a fair criticism. But this is the curious thing – the negative responses to this season have all been from woker-than-thou liberal reviewers pointing out how the protagonist is a white male, or that there’s one throwaway line that includes the word ‘tranny’ and therefore they’re making light of transphobic violence. I haven’t come across a single review that gives much of a damn about the antagonists being stereotypes, merely objections that the producers didn’t turn Jack Ryan into a disabled black trans woman.
This, of course, cuts to the heart of modern American liberalism, which can be summed up with the epithet ‘White Phosphorous and Gay Marriage’. They take an open-minded, progressive approach to social morality but a hardcore neo-con approach to foreign policy. Hence, you can spend 8 episodes portraying the only Muslims in the show as medieval rapists and terrorists and they won’t bat an eyelid, but make one joke about trannies and you’ll be accused of hyper-gonadal white male entitled transphobia. It’s not as though they depicted the bombing of a transsexual’s home as a noble act, so I think these critics need to stop their hyperventilating histrionics and get a fucking grip on the real world.
As such I’m left wondering how Islamists respond to this kind of TV. As Chase Brandon observed, ‘terrorists watch TV too’, and if recent history is anything to go by they get a lot of their ideas from Hollywood. Ordinary Muslims probably don’t enjoy constantly being portrayed as noisy, crazy, violent thugs but for those who’ve joined a militia or terrorist gang I do wonder. The negative stereotyping feeds into their feelings of victimisation, and provides them with the same rebellious archetype as Bonnie and Clyde provide for white westerners.
Likewise, the depiction of Muslims carrying out daring, hi-tech terrorist attacks is a kind of revenge fantasy for Islamists. They are evil, yes, but they’re also bold and intelligent, they take risks and do extraordinary things. From the Islamist perspective I’m guessing this is very similar in its effects to the romanticised portraits of gangsters and their effects on some Italian-Americans. So the copycat effect is in play in these films and TV shows, not just in terms of practical suggestions for methods or targets, but also psychologically and ideologically.
Which begs the question – are the CIA aware of this? Are they deliberately encouraging it? I’m honestly not sure. The CIA is a fairly self-contained institution with its own peculiar delusions about the world and its role in the world. It wouldn’t surprise me if most CIA officers believe their own lies, and therefore see a show like Jack Ryan as a very positive piece of PR for the Agency. So, inasmuch as this copycat effect for Islamists is a real phenomenon, I think it is mostly blowback from state sponsorship of popular culture, rather than a deliberate effort.