As Without Remorse releases on Amazon Prime Video, a deep dive into Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan universe
Without Remorse, starring Michael B Jordan as a back-in-action CIA agent, is Amazon Prime Video's second Tom Clancy adaptation after John Krasinski-starrer show Jack Ryan.
For those unfamiliar with the world of video games, this will probably come across as fake news or exaggeration, but here it is anyway: since 2002, the US Armed Forces have had their own line of video games, specifically a first-person shooter series called America’s Army. The game acts as both recruiting tool and propaganda wing for the military, and they keep releasing updated versions, giving civilians a feel for an American soldier’s life on ground zero.
In 2007, the US military partnered with Ubisoft to release a spinoff called America’s Army: True Soldiers. The game was advertised as an “Official US Army Game”. The tagline was “Created by Soldiers. Developed by Gamers. Tested by Heroes.”
For this unique venture, the military partnered with Red Storm Entertainment, the video games wing of a bestselling author’s media empire — Tom Clancy’s. America’s Army: True Soldiers even used the same engine used by previous Tom Clancy/Red Storm games like the Splinter Cell series. Clancy (1947-2013), the author of high-octane military/CIA thrillers like The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger, and Patriot Games, was the perfect conduit. More than anyone else, it was he who popularised the military thriller as a genre in the US. John F Kenndedy's endorsement shot Ian Fleming to the top of American bestselling lists (the former president confessed to devouring James Bond books during an extended convalescence). Ronald Reagan’s endorsement of Tom Clancy did something similar in the mid-80s.
Later this week, Amazon Prime Video is going to release its second Tom Clancy adaptation in recent years: after the John Krasinski series Jack Ryan, it is the Michael B Jordan movie Without Remorse. Directed by Stefano Solima, Without Remorse introduces the Clancy character John T Clark, a former Navy SEAL who has fallen on hard times after losing his pregnant wife — but in typical Clancy fashion, is asked to serve his country again, this time as a Central Intelligence Agency CIA) field operative.
Like the name suggests, Without Remorse is about a man who, unlike Ryan, does not think twice before pulling that trigger. Clancy himself called Clark “Ryan’s dark side." This also ties in neatly with the way Krasinski’s Jack Ryan played out, the origin story of a soldier-turned-desk-jockey who reluctantly (or so he says) picks up a gun again.
Let us explore how the Clancy-verse gained prominence in the US, and susbequently around the globe.
Insurance heir, military geek
Quite simply, Clancy was the right military geek at the right place at the right time. His popularity exploded right after a phase in which the American army was depicted in mostly critical tones — think Apocalypse Now or MASH. The country was primed for a new round of chest-thumping military shoot ‘em ups, and Clancy gave it to them.
At the time he published his first novel, The Hunt for Red October (1984), he was working at an insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut that belonged to his wife’s grandfather (he later bought the firm from his wife’s grandmother). He had previously applied to the US Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps but had been turned down because of his severe myopia. Shrugging off his disappointment, Clancy continued reading about military operations, specifically the technological advancements that the US Army boasted of — not just weapons, but also aircraft tech, surveillance gear and so on. He knew their manufacturing and deployment histories, not to mention the mechanics of every last piece of equipment.
The Hunt for Red October and other Clancy novels would later be praised for featuring a degree of unprecedented detail and accuracy in these matters. Ryan was introduced in The Hunt for Red October, and he would go on to become a mainstay of Clancy’s books —today, these novels are known as the ‘Ryanverse.' Fittingly, The Hunt for Red October was published by the Naval Institute Press, which typically produces non-fiction titles that are either biographical or pertain to military education. It became the surprise bestseller of the year, selling 45,000 copies.
The story follows a rogue Soviet naval captain called Marko Ramius (played by Sean Connery in the 1990 film version), who wishes to defect to the US along with his officers — and his vessel, the most advanced nuclear missile submarine ever made by the Soviet Union. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) must figure out what Ramius truly wants and thereby prevent all-out war between America and the Soviet Union.
After President Reagan’s endorsement of the book as a “ripping yarn," it went on to sell an additional 300,000 copies, announcing Clancy’s arrival as one of the US' bestselling writers. Subsequent works Red Storm Rising (1986), Patriot Games (1987), and Clear and Present Danger (1989) each sold more than the last one, cementing the author’s status — the latter two titles would be adapted into Hollywood blockbusters, with Harrison Ford starring as Ryan in both.
Clancy is the reason so many Gen X-ers online seem to be de facto experts in military tech. He bestowed an air of ‘good, clean, all-American fun’ upon this world. He de-coupled the tools of war from their inevitable, blood-soaked consequences.
In a 2014 article from The Baffler, Andrew J Bacevich wrote:
“Clancy did for military pop-lit what Starbucks did for the preparation of caffeinated beverages: he launched a sprawling, massively profitable industrial enterprise that simultaneously serves and cultivates an insatiable customer base. Whether the item consumed provides much in terms of nourishment is utterly beside the point. That it tastes yummy going down more than suffices to keep customers coming back.”
Modern-day adaptations and the reinvention of Jack Ryan
Clancy’s political views were conservative. During interviews, he frequently incorporated Republican talking points. For example, during an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show after 9/11, he suggested that Democrats like Bill Clinton were partially responsible for the terrorist attack — they had “gutted the CIA,” and as a result, there was a massive intelligence failure leading up to the events of 9/11.
His heroes, Jack Ryan and John Clark, often advocated for unilateral military interventions in foreign countries — American exceptionalism at its finest. In fact, in his latter books, Ryan becomes the American President after a decidedly deus ex machina-turn of events (the same plane crash taking out the entire top brass of civilian and military leadership). This is the dream scenario for a lifelong Republican; think John McCain’s Presidential campaign where his status as Vietnam Prisoner of War was repeatedly emphasised. Only a former soldier could aspire to become the ideal commander-in-chief, these books seemed to argue.
To an extent, modern-day Clancy adaptations have been an elaborate exercise in softening this hawkish Republican edge off these stories. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), starring Chris Pine, started this process by making Ryan more cerebral than before. In Krasinski’s rendition, Ryan becomes an outright geek, reeling off answers to a TV quiz he is watching in one scene. This Jack Ryan is the deskbound analyst who wants to steer well clear of the actual action (owing to unresolved Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from surviving a suicide bombing in Afghanistan). Not only that, Krasinski’s ‘disguise’ here is convincing because of interpolation — despite his bulked-up frame (Krasinski gained considerable muscle mass for this role; jacked Ryan amirite?) audiences saw Jim Halpert, his character from The Office, an unthreatening, liberal man who dutifully does his 9-to-5 desk job, loves his wife, recycles and steers well clear of violent confrontation. This Jack Ryan even drives his bicycle to work, which Harrison Ford’s Ryan would not be caught dead doing, for example.
Essentially, Krasinski was “trying to play a red-state hero while being apolitical," as a famous Buzzfeed piece put it. At one point in the show, Ryan appears to be remorseful about his continued association with the CIA. “I’m trying to change things from the inside,” he says. He is not on board with his colleagues’ trigger-happiness, especially when it comes to torture — but he is more than happy to use information gained this way.
But the show, to its credit, also realises that the veneer is thin, at best. When Ryan is, inevitably, sucked into the field fighting the terrorist Mousa bin Suleiman (“the next Bin Laden”), a French cop he is working alongside tells him: “You’re a wolf who likes to pretend he’s a sheep," signaling that at some level, Ryan never really stopped being a soldier — and that he knew this all along. His desk jockey persona is exactly as believable as Clark Kent or Peter Parker’s. It is cute, but you cannot wait for them to run into an alley and rip their shirt off to reveal who they really are. The second season of Jack Ryan, surprisingly, rolled back much of the moral ambiguity and (what for a Clancy story counted as) emotional complexity of the first, preferring to deliver a straightforward, classic Clancy CIA tale, of Ryan taking out a Venezuelan drug ring in his trademark super-efficient manner.
This, then, is likely to be the ‘flattened’ mode of storytelling we will see in Without Remorse — which is, after all, supposed to be more brutal and gory than an average Jack Ryan caper. And they have a brilliant, currently in-vogue action movie star at their disposal in Michael B Jordan. Will the Tom Clancy formula, then, work yet again? We will find out.
Without Remorse will stream on Amazon Prime Video from 30 April.
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