By MK Raghavendra
Jack Ryan is to the CIA what James Bond was to Britain’s MI 6. Where the marginalization of Britain in the new millennium makes James Bond more a sex symbol than an interpretable global symptom, Jack Ryan is the spy of the moment. The arrival of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan as a television series on Amazon Prime Video is therefore a matter of some political importance. Espionage narratives are a genre steeped in history and therefore flower only within a recognizable context. Even Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (1907), which deals with unnamed political agencies, invokes the ‘proletariat’ and suggests the anarchist terrorism of the late nineteenth century. The fantastic nature of ‘SPECTRE’ from the James Bond films (Spectre), not associable with known politics, points to the relegation of Britain, to its lack of confidence in its own global significance. When a country is no longer a key political player globally, its fiction centred on international intrigue might become ‘fantasy’.
Since the espionage genre has historical basis and its narratives are about the doings of nation-states, it is prone to taking sides. It cannot but be given to partisanship although serious kinds of spy fiction (John le Carre, Graham Greene, etc.) do accommodate the other side to embrace moral complexities. In the realm of cinema most espionage films can be classified in terms of political context like WW I and II (The Imitation Game), The Cold War (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy), the American war against the Colombian drug cartels, which were virtually as powerful as sovereign states (Clear and Present Danger), the war against terror in which adversaries can be mysterious intermediaries like arms dealers and financiers (Casino Royale, Mission Impossible) and the muddle in the Middle-East (Body of Lies).
Espionage thrillers rely on the familiarity of the context in which they are set and one can hence conversely understand from them what the audiences they cater to believe or know about it. Still, the indications are that audiences know less and less today about political compulsions in the globalized world. In the era of the Cold War, in contrast, there was public certainty about the issues involved; the uncertainty today is paraphrased by M in Casino Royale in one sentence, “God, I miss the Cold War!” The Middle-East is especially opaque here and one of the most alarming political happenings in recent years – the rise of ISIS – is impossible to comprehend. There are many aspects intriguing here – who funded ISIS; why the US saw its primary enemy Syria’s secular-minded dictator Bashar al-Assad as more threatening; why despite its animosity towards all religions outside Sunni Islam, ISIS did not designate Israel an enemy; who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was, who set him up and how he disappeared without a trace when ISIS lost ground. No power appears interested in even locating al-Baghdadi today, in contrast to the international manhunt once launched for Osama bin Laden. Ideology still marks global rhetoric (‘democracy’, ‘human rights’) but where ‘ideology’ once meant something distinct, it does not, now. My proposition is that by looking at the areas of ignorance/confusion one might understand what is deliberately kept from the public; more specifically, the lacunae/absences in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan could tell us something about secret compulsions in global politics.
Before examining the series it is interesting to consider how the CIA is represented in Hollywood cinema. The image of the agency has been dented by its torture of suspects and waterboarding becoming public knowledge, and the Jason Bourne series was one such negative portrayal. Still, what invited the adverse portrayals in Hollywood is not so much the CIA’s international conduct as its doings within the US. The central issue in The Bourne Identity (2002), for instance, is how a voting American named David Webb is robbed of his individuality and turned into a killing machine without character. The Recruit (2003), likewise, is about what American recruits suffer and the deceit they are routinely made to practice on each other. In most films dealing with the CIA’s doings abroad, torture is admitted to but the overall tone is mild regret: ‘it is not nice but we had no option’, as in Zero Dark Thirty (2013). Sometimes the manipulations are laid at the doorstep of a ‘complicated political scenario’ without acknowledgement that the scenario owed to US interference, its destabilizing of the region.
Coming to the series, Dr Jack Ryan of the CIA is a fictional character who has appeared in various contexts and played by different stars. In The Hunt for Red October (1990), set at the conclusion of the Cold War, he gets a Soviet submarine commander to defect; in Clear and Present Danger (1994), he combats a drug lord resembling Pablo Escobar; in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), the villains are Russians engineering the financial collapse of the US through a terrorist attack. Hollywood is predominantly liberal in its ideology and the red-flagging of Putin’s Russia happened when the Obama’s Democratic administration was challenged by that country in its manoeuvres to bring down Syria’s Assad.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is not based on a novel by the author but uses the central character as a pivot. Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) is a financial analyst working for the CIA and his immediate boss is James Greer (Wendell Pierce), an African-American recognizable from the earlier films. The new series begins with a preamble set in the 1980s: two children in Lebanon witness the destruction of their home in an air attack. But the plot gets going when Dr Jack Ryan spots aberrant financial activity in the markets and traces it to a mysterious new player named Suleiman, discovered to be a Yemeni terrorist Mousa Bin Suleiman. It comes out that Suleiman is planning an operation, and that happens in a Paris church in which nearly 400 people are killed in a Sarin (nerve gas) attack. Suleiman lives in a secret hideout in Syria and he is in conflict with ISIS. He procures a group of American hostages from the local ISIS commander, gets the latter’s soldiers to defect and then locks him up. Suleiman differs with ISIS in that he is for pan-Islamic unity, bringing together the Sunnis and the Shiites. But he still has problems inside his own family and his disapproving wife Hanin manages to escape with her daughters to Turkey, leaving her son behind with his father.
The film is largely set in the Middle-East and the ‘bad’ territories named are Yemen, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon while the key omissions are Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. If we consider what is known about military alignments, we know that Syria and Lebanon are controlled by groups or regimes hostile to the US and Israel. Turkey which is part of NATO has now also become inimical to the US, under Erdogan. Yemen (now divided by a Shiite-led rebellion) is embroiled in a war with the more powerful Saudis, armed to the teeth by the West and supporting the erstwhile Sunni President. Iran, Syria under Assad, and the Lebanese group Hezbollah are aligned, and all three are Shiite or Shiite affiliated (Bashar al-Assad is of the Alawite sect). These three Shiite allies also constitute the chief military opposition to Israel. The Wikipedia notes that while Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have any official diplomatic relations, news reports have surfaced indicating extensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic and intelligence cooperation between the countries, in pursuit of mutual goals against regional enemy Iran.
Given the above divisions there is hardly any likelihood of Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, though the Sunnis are themselves not united. Qatar, which is predominantly Sunni, was placed under a blockade by its Sunni neighbours. It was accused of fomenting terrorism but the real reason could have been its ties with Iran, with which it shares gas and oil fields in the Persian Gulf (Iran, Russia and Qatar control 50% of the world’s oil reserves and constitute a bloc in OPEC). Turkey is also a Sunni country but imports most of its gas from Iran; it is not as distant from Iran as it should be, given its sectarian links. The scenario is confusing but not so much as to justify a Shiite-Sunni common platform, as in the television series. The offered motivation for the ‘pan-Islamic alignment’ is the childhood trauma of Suleiman in Lebanon, when bombed (presumably) by Israel. Hollywood favours psychology as a cause for political problems and this is no exception.
While the underlying relationships in the global arena are evidently dominated by economic interests there is a cover of ideological/humanist/sectarian rhetoric that clouds issues. Popular texts like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan assist in promoting the mythologies that submerge economic motives among the global players. If its line were to be believed, one would take humanism as the principal motive driving political actions; the Western liberal media in the US is also guilty of the same deliberate naiveté, with its strident rhetoric of human rights when it analyses military happenings actively involving the country.
Returning to Jack Ryan, Suleiman is now taking revenge for what he saw happening to his home in childhood and he is eventually defeated because his wife recognises the West as the site of righteousness. Moral choice is presented as the key and it is shown to constitute the basis of all key political decisions. To give this emphasis there is another aspect that needs comment, which is Suleiman’s personal presence in every operation. To undertake what he must, he needs enormous capital and a secure network of operatives which would necessarily render him shadowy, but he participates personally every time. At one level this is a ruse to pit hero against villain at the personal level but there is also a subtext to be noted.
The doings of the villain in a spy film are not revealed up-front as happens here and one wonders at such transparency from someone who should rightly be shrouded in mystery. As counterpoint to the trauma-driven terrorist Suleiman, we have the humanist Jack Ryan, also traumatized in Afghanistan. To speculate on why global doings should be epitomised by moral conflicts between individuals, Jack Ryan does not simply work for the CIA – he embodies the essence of US policy, just as Suleiman exemplifies the other side. James Greer is himself a practising Muslim, to show that moral choice should not merely be guided by religious affinities. To emphasize moral choice as a basis, there is a ludicrous episode in which a drone operator in Nevada who has killed someone innocent in Syria turns up at the dead man’s village to apologize to his family and compensate them financially. By pitting Jack Ryan against Suleiman at the personal level, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan proposes that that the causes of military action are analogous to personal motivation, driven by understandable desires and ethical considerations.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is vastly more unsophisticated than most films featuring espionage but it has been highly regarded by its audience. Whenever fictional renderings of the actual world so incredible get public approval it is not unreasonable to suppose that they have been successful at masking truths about the doings they are ostensibly describing. The logic is that popular texts perpetuate mythologies that keep the body politic cohesive – like the foundational myths of any nation – and scrutinising the mythologies could help us get at inadmissible truths. We may therefore suppose from the emphasis given to ideology, belief, and moral choice in Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan that these are exactly the same issues that do not drive the military policy of the US. What this implies is that the actual reasons for foreign policy decisions are deliberately kept from the public by the administration and, judging by the issues never mentioned, the principal motivations are business interests and geopolitical equations. The US is a democracy but, in its important military decisions, it is driven by narrower considerations than the concerns of its citizens, or even by something that can be acknowledged to them. What cannot be acknowledged to the public in a democracy are evidently the guiding interests of the few.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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