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The CIA-sponsored streaming wars hit a new high recently, when Netflix premiered The Recruit and within days Amazon released the third season of Jack Ryan. In this episode we compare and contrast these two CIA-supported, Russian-antagonisted spy shows, analysing how they appeal to quite different audiences but both contain PR talking points from the Agency. We look at the depictions of Russia and the New Cold War, as well as how the shows deal with geopolitical conspiracies, both real and theoretical.

I don’t want to push a conspiracy theory, but it is odd that Netflix and Amazon both put out their newest spy culture, both featuring Russian villains, at the exact same time. It’s even weirder when you realise that the second season of Slow Horses, on Apple’s streaming service, also features Russian villains (albeit in a more subtle way), and also came out in the last weeks of 2022. Almost as though they were competing with superficially similar products for the Biden peace prize, given to the most Russia-focused entertainment series.

Right off the bat: I enjoyed elements of both The Recruit and Jack Ryan, despite their best efforts to irritate me enough to cut them off mid-season. I don’t recommend either, as such, but depending on your tolerances you may wish to give some time to them. Let’s start with The Recruit, since it is a brand new show (sort of). I first became aware of this about a year ago, and instantly thought it was just a TV version of the 2003 movie of the same name.

This isn’t entirely correct, in that we never see the main character getting recruited or going through training, and while it is an action thriller in places it is primarily a workplace comedy. Our recruit is a lawyer, working for the CIA general counsel’s office, and season one covers his first weeks on the job. So, quite different from Colin Farrell being recruited, trained, tortured and manipulated by Al Pacino.

However, just as with the movie there can be little doubt that the CIA helped make The Recruit. There are tons of shots of Langley, from both the Western side, with the old headquarters building, and the Eastern side, with the new headquarters building. The CIA’s logo decorates every computer monitor and LED screen, and the offices look like the real thing.

Then there are the creators of the show. The showrunner is Alexi Hawley, who made The Rookie, the LAPD copaganda recruitment series that I’ve discussed several times before. It seems he’s moving up in the world, now helping the CIA hire the next generation of lawyers to protect them from… themselves? An executive producer and the director of the first two episodes is Doug Liman, who has a fairly long history of making these sorts of productions.

To my knowledge, it started with the original Bourne trilogy. Chase Brandon, who of course shadow-wrote The Recruit (the movie), said of the script for The Bourne Identity that it was ‘so bad I tossed it in the burn bag after 25 pages’. And yet, Langley appears in the movie, and Chase is there on the DVD extras praising it. So while he might have tried to distance himself from the Agency’s involvement in Bourne (the other films have similar tell-tale signs), the CIA clearly did support and influence those productions. And Liman was involved as a director and/or producer on all three.

Then he made Fair Game, about the Valerie Plame Affair, which came out in 2010. He then went on to make the TV series Covert Affairs, which is a Homeland knock-off starring Piper Perabo. In an interview she said:

Yes, Doug Liman, our executive producer, was in the middle of editing Fair Game when I got cast in the pilot, which is the story of Valerie Plame Wilson, so I knew he had contacts down at Langley. And I asked him if he could get me an introduction so that I could go there and see what it’s really like and talk to real people who do this for a living. So he did, and this sort of shows my naiveté, but I brought a notebook with me so I could take notes. I had a lot of questions that I wanted to ask.

When I got there they told me, of course, you can’t bring a notebook into the CIA. … number one is … take notes in the secret agency. I said, “Oh, okay when we get inside could I have some paper and a pen?” And the agent who was taking me around said, “Sure, but you have to leave it inside when you leave.” Of course you can’t take notes out of the CIA either. I said, “Well, how am I supposed to keep all this information?” He said, “You have to be like a spy and remember it.” It was interesting that before I even got inside you can feel how tight and secret the whole world is. It was an amazing day. It started there and it was incredible.

Another major Doug Liman project is American Made, a movie which makes the tale of the CIA colluding with drugs traffickers to raise money for black operations seem like the whacky adventures of Barry Seal and nothing more. Some sharper commentators have pointed out that Doug’s father, Arthur Liman, was the chief counsel to the Senate’s investigation of Iran-Contra, an investigation which largely failed despite Liman Snr’s assertions that ‘we all won’.

Thus, it is curious to see Doug producing and directing an evidently CIA-supported series about a lawyer, no? Especially, a series wherein the CIA, and especially the general counsel’s office, are shown as being terrified of congressional oversight (as though it’s a meaningful threat to their way of life rather than a bureaucratic circlejerk). Indeed, Iran-Contra is mentioned in The Recruit, but we’ll get to that.

The series is, in broad terms, a workplace comedy. We follow Owen Hendricks, a young lawyer who has just joined the Agency, and see his first days and weeks on the job. In many ways it is an absolutely typical ‘neophyte initiated into the secret, exciting world of the CIA’ story, which is the basic plot of many of these productions, including Person of Interest, which also starts with the protagonist’s first day on the job.

What’s interesting is that Langley is not painted as an ideal workplace. There’s a lot of infighting, backstabbing, office politics, jealousy and ambition. I can only assume the CIA tolerated this because otherwise you don’t really have a TV show, an office where everyone gets along and no one keeps secrets isn’t very interesting to watch. But also because it makes Langley seem more normal, like any other office you might work in as a lawyer.

And this show is clearly aimed at recruiting lawyers – most of the characters are lawyers, they’ve clearly gone for the most multicultural cast they could find, and they make the CIA seem like an exciting place to work. If I were as cretinous as the lawyers in The Recruit, which I think most American lawyers are, I would seriously consider the Agency as a career option. It worked on me, and I detest lawyers.

The Recruit’s Use of Iran-Contra and CIA Conspiracy Theories

Those are the broad strokes, but let’s get into some specifics because the way The Recruit handles CIA conspiracies, both real and theoretical, is a lot more subtle than most of the rest of the series. I did like some of the jokes, but they’re often asking for the laugh, trying to find an excuse for a gag.

For example, there’s an older lawyer who works down the hall from Owen who is constantly stressed out because the black ops team he’s responsible for keeps trying to do illegal stuff. Then they drug him so he falls asleep on the job, and go rogue, just run off and start doing their own thing. We never see them in action, we just hear about it through comic dialogue, so the whole thing isn’t taken seriously, but inasmuch as it is to be taken seriously, it’s passed off as a rogue uncontrollable unit. If anything, we feel sorry for this lawyer who is trying to keep them on a leash.

The central plot begins with Owen being given the graymail box – a box of letters from people threatening to expose Agency secrets. His job is to vet them all and figure out if any are serious, and hence warrant further action. The initial montage of him going through the letter is full of typical CIA conspiracy theories – JFK, UFOs, secret prisons, false flags. The exact same discussion points that appear in CIA-supported episodes of Top Chef and Pawn Stars, and in the CIA’s new podcast, the Langley Files.

They’re dangling all this out there, but always in a way that makes it seem quirky and mundane. This is how entertainment media can become genuinely dangerous – the internet makes it impossible to maintain the dominion over information that agencies like the CIA previously enjoyed. So, instead of tackling this stuff head on by openly entering into the debate, they use film and TV to recontextualise these scandalous, murderous behaviours and take the sting out of them.

Likewise, the working culture at the CIA is shown to be dysfunctional, beset by paranoia and no one wanting to know what’s going on, because knowledge is complicity, and complicity might mean being called before Congress. This shifts the blame for the CIA’s excessive secrecy and incompetence from the Agency itself to the Congressional oversight committees. If only we just let the CIA do what it wants, it would work so much better. This idea also appears in the first Mission: Impossible movie, where a TV host berates a senator for wanting more oversight of the CIA, accusing him of weakening America’s national security.

I imagine you’re getting an impression of The Recruit – much like the original film it’s something of a mindfuck, twisting everything it touches to make it seem like something other than what it is. And, just like in the original film, our protagonist gets tortured.

In the graymail box he finds a letter from a Russian CIA asset, currently being held in prison awaiting trial for murder. She is threatening to expose the names of CIA operatives, and other secrets. So Owen tracks down a CIA operative that the asset mentions, to a black site in Yemen. Note, the first episode of Amazon’s Jack Ryan sees Jack going to – that’s right – a black site in Yemen.

The operative – a tough black lady – kidnaps Owen and tortures him, pulling out one of his fingernails. This is a technique favoured by the Iranian Savak intelligence service, taught to them by the CIA. It is extremely painful and leaves an injury that takes weeks, if not months, to fully heal.

But not in The Recruit. Owen never visits a doctor, he simply ties a makeshift bandage around his hand and flies back to the United States. A few people ask about the injury, but it doesn’t hold him back from continuing on his mission.

In the original film this idea is played out much further – Colin Farrell’s character is kidnapped, locked in a cell for weeks, repeatedly electrocuted and tortured in other ways, is psychologically abused and manipulated. It isn’t the most realistic depiction, and we never see any meaningful aftershocks from this, but at least it isn’t one moment, quickly forgotten.

So, putting this together – torture isn’t so bad after all, and congressional oversight is causing more problems at the CIA than it solves. Is it just me, or is this show starting to feel like an overdue response to the senate committee’s torture report? In Mission: Impossible they reference the Church Committee from the 1970s, and the torture report was the closest thing we’ve had to the Church Committee in the post-9/11 period.

The main plot in The Recruit isn’t very interesting – Owen helps get the Russian lady out of prison, because she’s threatening to reveal the names of loads of CIA assets in Belarus and Russia. She is depicted as a sociopath – manipulative, violent, constantly lying. There is the obligatory polygraph scene, like in Homeland, Meet the Parents, Game of Pawns, Alias and the rest, and Owen even helps her pass the polygraph so she can be reactivated and sent back into Russia.

Then, another curiosity. In a flashback it is revealed that our untrustworthy Ruskie was a madam, catering to the Russian ruling class. It is heavily implied that she is essentially Ghislaine Maxwell, but for Russian oligarchs. Funny how we can depict the Russian ruling class as sexually depraved, but when it comes to our own ruling class we tend to steer clear. But then, Epstein didn’t kill himself, so I can understand screenwriters being a bit wary.

There are other problems with The Recruit – the characters are quite loosely drawn, almost everything we find out about them comes from expositional dialogue, people just spelling out their personalities. While in The Rookie the shift from schmaltzy personal drama to police procedural and back again works quite well, when it’s the CIA and there’s one long plot rather than episodic storylines, it falls down. The contrasts are too great – one moment Owen is in Lebanon dealing with some black ops guy who isn’t paying his child support, the next he’s chatting to his ex in a bar about their former relationship. However, the audience responses have been very positive, so I can only assume it has found its place and will get renewed for another season.

Towards the end of the series, something really pricked up my ears. The older lawyer down the hall reveals that his black ops team put a bunch of shoulder mounted missiles out into the world so they could track them, but they ended up in the hands of terrorists. This is obviously based on the Fast and Furious scandal at the ATF.

He asks Owen for help in how to deal with this, and Owen suggests he adds another element to the story to overcomplicate it and muddy the waters as to exactly what happened.

What Owen suggests is correct – one of the reasons people are still talking about Watergate but not about Iran-Contra is that Watergate (at least the mainline version) is simple to understand. You just watch All the President’s Men. Whereas drug dealing rebels in Nicaragua mixed with hostages in Lebanon and covert arms smuggling to Iran is too complicated for a lot of people to understand.

What I want to know is where this idea came from, in this otherwise quite simply-written TV programme. Alexi Hawley dropped one line about the Rampart scandal into the Rookie, but it was a total downplay and dilution, whereas this bit of dialogue is very astute. Is this revelation of how the CIA deals with scandals – by overcomplicating them so no one can be sure what happened – the result of Doug Liman’s CIA connections? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Jack Ryan Season 3 – Russians Gone Wild

Moving onto Amazon’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the third season came out within days of The Recruit. I have to say, it has recovered some of the panache it had in season one, possibly benefiting from new writers and a new showrunner. Season two was quite dull, as a piece of entertainment, but the original writer, Marine Corps veteran Graham Roland, and the original showrunner Carlton Cuse, dropped out of their roles for this third season. It seems they’d run out of energy and ideas, which is ironic given how many Clancy novels there are to take material from.

Season three largely takes place in the Czech Republic, which is at the centre of the story. You may remember at the start of season two that Bunk from The Wire is Moscow station chief, but Jim from The Office is convinced that the Russians are shipping nukes to Venezuela. So they team up with a serial killer from The Shield and go down there to take a look. They don’t find any nukes, but they do find a rampant dictatorship in need of a good overthrowing. At the end of season one it looked like we were going to get a Russia-themed season two, but they switched focus to Venezuela just in time to coincide with the latest round of real-life CIA operations in the country, aimed at overthrowing the government.

Now we’re back on track, and in keeping with at least 60% of spy shows that I’ve seen in the last three years, and over 75% of the state-sponsored spy shows, the villains in Jack Ryan season three are those good old Ruskies. And there was a whole bundle of state sponsorship – the US Navy provided a warship, just like in season two.

They got funding or tax credits from Quebec, Hungary, Greece, Spain and the Czechs. On top of that, the Slovakian Ministry of Defence are also credited, and if you watch the whole series you’ll see some of their hardware, first masquerading as NATO missiles in the Czech Republic and then as a Russian warship during the tense stand-off at the climax of the story.

What about the CIA? Well, the CIA logo seen on the various plasma screens is not the real CIA logo, it’s one mocked up to look a bit like it. But this seems to be a bluff, an attempt to distance themselves from the show, possibly because some disreputable journalist has been going on about their support to Jack Ryan for several years. There are several shots of Langley, both aerial and on the ground, and right at the end of the final episode Bunk and Jim walk out of CIA headquarters, through the real lobby, past the memorial wall. It’s a reverse of the usual shot where they come in through the doors and walk across the seal on the floor.

Then, there’s the credit (or discredit) at the end of every episode – ‘The Central Intelligence Agency has not Approved or Endorsed the Contents of this Production’. Then, there’s this:

And things like this:

While I don’t know exactly who Wendell Pierce’s personal ex-CIA consultant is, we do know that David Chasteen, a former Army Captain and CIA Clandestine Service officer has been a consultant since the first episode.

Before moving on to the storyline and some key moments in Jack Ryan season 3, I just want to note that all of these countries – whether they provided military, intelligence or financial support – are members of NATO. The US, Canada, Greece, Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia. They all found some PR value in supporting this series, and did so shoulder to shoulder.

Reel Bad Russians: Jack Ryan Season 3

One of the amusing things about Jack Ryan is how it is clearly a political propaganda series, and the entire Clancy universe has been from the jump. Pretending otherwise is stupid, and unconvincing.

But something being stupid doesn’t stop people doing it. Eponymous star John Krasinski has repeatedly denied that his work is political, including in one interview provoked by my video on seasons one and two of the series. In the run-up to the release of season three he was at it again, acknowledging the parallels between the storyline and real events but denying that there’s any connection.

Apparently they came up with all this three years ago, after finishing work on season two, and the whole plot is inspired by Hunt for the Red October. But whereas that’s a story about a brand new, sonar-silent nuclear submarine that goes missing because the captain is defecting to the US, this is a story about a rogue Russian faction planning to resurrect the Soviet Union, Russia having invaded Ukraine.

So, was this inspired by real events, or CIA predictions of real events, or by a novel written thirty years ago that has almost nothing to do with the storyline? Let’s not forget, season two begins with Jim from The Office and Bunk from The Wire believing that the Russian government are sneaking nukes into Venezuela, a storyline set up at the end of season one. So it seems they’ve been building towards some kind of Russian-focused season since the beginning.

Let us also not forget that the Clancy novels first made waves during the final years of the Cold War. The storylines include the defecting submarine captain, the Soviets developing satellite laser weapons so the CIA and the mujahideen take out the control base in Central Asia, the Soviets invading Western Europe, as well as terrorist-themed tales like Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears. The later books, where Ryan becomes President after a Japanese pilot crashes a 747 into Congress, killing most of the politicians, weren’t as popular or groundbreaking.

So this has always been a Cold War or New Cold War fictional universe, that looks uncannily similar to the real universe that we live in. Thus, I don’t find Krasinski’s statements in this and other interviews at all convincing, for both generic and specific reasons. He’s either in denial about what he’s doing, or he’s just lying. And why lie, if you’ve got nothing to hide?

One of the interesting things about the storyline is that it has become the default in American entertainment. Typically, the evil Russians aren’t the centre of power, they’re a rogue faction or an extremist, nationalist faction led by a general who has stopped following orders. This is the storyline in Crimson Tide and Hunter-Killer, of course.

However, both Homeland and The Undeclared War depicted the enemy as the Russian government itself, even Putin himself. This is somewhat unusual – typically, during the Cold War, Hollywood went to great pains to avoid explicitly blaming the Soviet Union for anything. Communists? Yes. Russians? Yes. But rarely the Soviet Union itself. And this isn’t just because Americans seem to have a real problem distinguishing between Russia and the Soviet Union. The documents on Ice Station Zebra, for example, show that the DOD was concerned about inflaming tensions if the Soviets were demonised, rather than shown to be the other side of the same coin.

It’s bizarre that news media, which supposedly reports on reality, can tell no end of lies about rival nations and superstates. But entertainment media, which is fictional, is subject to stricter rules about not pissing off other countries. In the early Cold War both the CIA and the State Department were influencing Hollywood to not depict other countries as backward, poverty-ridden shitholes full of simple-minded, sex-crazed savages.

So, Homeland and The Undeclared War stepped over that threshold, by depicting Russia and the Russian government per se as the threat. Jack Ryan, being a throwback reborn for the streaming service age, isn’t as bold, and defaults to the ‘faction of Russian nationalists’ narrative.

The strange thing is that set against this, the world of season three is a world where Russia has sort-of invaded Ukraine. It’s kept fairly vague as to exactly how closely the world of the show replicates the real world, but it is clear that Russia has troops in Ukraine and is threatening to move in more, maybe invade all the way up to the Slovakian border, i.e. the edge of NATO’s territory.

We never get to see the Russian president, who is not Putin anyway, but we do see his Prime Minister, who is portrayed as quite a reasonable and intelligent man. His secretary of defense is part of the faction, and even attempts a coup at one point, having got into his position by assassinating his more conciliatory and diplomatic predecessor. But the Prime Minister remains firm and nuclear war is averted.

Thus, inasmuch as this series is aimed at the Russian power structure it sends the message that the CIA knows that it isn’t the politicians making the decisions, but the Russian ruling class, some of whom are part of or swayed by imperialist or nationalist factions. A much more subtle and considered message than we usually get in news about Russian politics.

Where this deconstructs itself is that the coup faction aren’t strictly nationalists or even imperialists – they are nostalgics, looking to recreate the Soviet Union. The only people in Russia who could reasonably be accused of that are the Communist Party, the second largest party in the Duma (albeit a long way behind the conservative United Russia, the party Putin used to be part of). Communist nostalgia is not the same as nationalistic imperialism. Most Western audience members won’t make that distinction, but I do wonder what the target audience in Russia make of all this.

I will say, at its best Jack Ryan is as good as Homeland, and poached another of its cast for this season – Nina Hoss, who plays the German agent Astrid in three seasons of Homeland. She’s been promoted to the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, and is refreshingly not a cold, narcissistic Clinton clone. However, her former Red Army father is part of the coup faction, so she is being manipulated by an evil old Commie. This much I could tolerate, but the plot jumped the shark when it is revealed that he has been planning this his entire life, and strategically had his daughter with a Czech woman with the intention of her one day being able to play a role in the scheme.

This notion that Russians make 50 year plans where they’ve predicted everyone’s reactions ahead of time and are just lying in wait for the right opportunity to come along is utterly ridiculous. It’s essentially the New World Order conspiracy theory, that all we’re witnessing is the unfolding of the secret masterplan.

If that was true, then Russia would be ruling the world, rather than failing to win a war in Ukraine. Communist sleeper agents were replaced by Al Qaeda sleeper cells which were replaced by Russian twitter bots. All attributed a remarkable degree of influence, strategic thinking and long-term planning. None of which has turned out to be real or true.

One plot point that I want to highlight is how NATO is trying to move surface-to-air missiles into the Czech Republic, and at one point Greer – Wendell Pierce – is sent to talk to the Prime Minister. Why the CIA Moscow station chief would have any authority or responsibility for this isn’t clear, but the argument he makes is important.

In the world of Jack Ryan, NATO’s increased militarisation of central and Eastern Europe actually helps reduce the tensions with Russia, rather than is aimed at provoking a response. In the event, the PM accepts this argument and we get a scene shot at what I believe is a Slovakian Air Force Base, with lots of nice new NATO missiles. It turns out to be a destabilising move, but only because this is what the coup faction want, rather than because Greer’s argument is wrong.

Conclusion – Jack Ryan vs The Recruit

What can we conclude from all this? On the one hand, the CIA support to The Recruit seems fairly obvious. One more quick example: a recurring motif of CIA-supported production is that they emphasise how the Agency doesn’t operate domestically. This is reiterated on their podcast and, again, on The Recruit.

The fact that we’re getting almost word for word the same dialogue on the CIA’s own podcast as we’re getting in a TV show makes my job easier, but it doesn’t make this claim any less of a lie. So we can assume The Recruit got the full script review treatment, and that it was approved by the Office of Public Affairs. While it’s primary purpose may be recruitment outreach – it is called The Recruit, after all – it echoes many of the psychological tropes we saw in the original film and other supported productions. The most obvious is the trivialisation of torture, but also the normalisation of complex lies being used to cover up black operations.

Jack Ryan, the established franchise, is now in its third season, following on from several films and numerous books, so it has a different position in the cultural landscape. It seems this also enabled it to have a more intimate relationship with the CIA, which more closely resembles what happened on Homeland. I see Jack Ryan as the most obvious replacement for Homeland, a longer form spy drama that reads like it was devised by a CIA thinktank. The ability to pre-empt or neatly coincide with real-world events was perhaps the most striking characteristic of Homeland, and while season one of Jack Ryan was a by-the-books war on terror story, since then it has become much more. First, it helped promote CIA efforts to overthrow the government in Venezuela, making it seem like the progressive thing to do. Then, it presented a mildly new spin on the paranoid old fantasy about Russia trying to take over the world. Both, just in time to fit in with the geopolitical priorities and real on the ground operations being run by the same agencies who helped to make the series.

Like I said at the top, I don’t want to push a conspiracy theory, but…