Jack Ryan: The Shadow Recruit, directed by Kenneth Branagh
by Jeff Genota
It’s a cold January evening in Washington. I step into the breeze atop the Georgetown hill. Looking upwards, one can see the Russian tricolor and its storied embassy in the backdrop. Downhill, the towering Washington monument keeps me in place. I feel that lurking around me the Cold War was still raging, or at least my body warring against the cold with my tan overcoat. I look over my shoulder, left and right; to make sure I wasn’t followed. I carry on. My mission? To catch the screening of the latest installment in the Jack Ryan franchise, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
I accepted (but does Jack Ryan ever have a choice?). After all, I’m a stickler for the Jack Ryan franchise. The Hunt for the Red October, both the book (1984) and film (1990), catalyzed my interest in the Cold War and the world of intelligence. Clear and Present Danger (book, 1989; film, 1994) didn’t really win me over much, but The Sum of All Fears (1991, 2002) prompted an “Amen” to Judi Dench’s prayer in Casino Royale. “Christ, I miss the Cold War.”
I was a bit chilly about a new Jack Ryan film that didn’t bear the fingerprints of its legendary author, who passed away last October. A cursory look through its synopsis might make one dismiss the new film as yet another relic of the Cold War. As a discerning fan of spy-fi thrillers and a student of international relations, here’s my take on Shadow Recruit: It stays true to the classic Clancy storyline orthodoxy centering on the person of Jack Ryan, but Shadow Recruit turns Ryan more into the mold of 007 or Ethan Hunt. More of a courageous warrior boy scout than Ben Affleck in Sum of All Fears, but much less of an analyst than Alec Baldwin in Hunt for Red October. On a broader level, though; the creators of Shadow Recruit should be credited for updating a Cold War-era brand to keep it relevant to the times. In turn, these two themes amplify the condition of man, the use of power, and man’s relationship to the Divine.
Jack Ryan: More Boy Scout than Academic
Like both Red October and Sum of All Fears, Shadow Recruit places its main characters in the backdrop of the ever-present geopolitical drama between the United States and Russia (or the Soviet Union, in the older stories). Shadow Recruit resembles its predecessors in the circumstances that surround Jack Ryan. Ryan, a dutiful desk hand at the CIA, is somewhat reluctantly dragged into preventing conflict between the two superpowers. It’s safe to say that Clancy would have approved of this installment in at least adhering to the Clancy clash-of-the-superpowers storyline and soft American patriotism.
The noticeable difference to the two earlier films and Shadow Recruit is that Ryan becomes “operational.” Similar to Sum and Red October, Ryan is an analyst catapulted into action, a reluctant warrior. In Shadow Recruit, he trades his intellectual pursuits for the call of duty after 9/11 but is seriously injured in Afghanistan. He struggles through and recovers with physical therapy while meeting his opposite number Cathy (Keira Knightly). He’s later drafted by Harper later on to continue serving his country by combating terrorism in the shadow world of insider trading. He then traces, and later collides with a nefarious plot by a mysterious Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), seeking to bring glory to Mother Russia by wreaking havoc to the United States with the unofficial approval of Moscow.
Most notably, in Shadow Recruit, Ryan is more of a reluctant warrior. He fights to recover, fights to preserve his courtship, fights to stay strong. Though early on he seems to have the guts for it, Ryan isn’t interested in hand-to-hand combat; but he courageously rescues his damsel in distress with a well-executed, Ethan Hunt-esque stunt on the streets of Moscow. Conversely, Ryan isn’t much of an academic, though he seems to apply himself well. He does bring out the classic Jack Ryan analytical maestro in piecing together the Russian plot to destroy America and marshaling the assets to follow suit, but then it’s all hand-to-hand combat to single-handedly save New York from carnage.
Reading Between the Lines: The Cold War Today?
Shadow Recruit differs from the previous films in that Russia directly seeks to bring down the United States. In Red October, the Soviets are trying to prevent the crown jewel of their seaborne nuclear missile force from falling into American hands without combating the Americans; and in Sum of All Fears, Russia and America are pawns in the hands of a devious Austrian businessman that are played into an almost all-out nuclear war. Here, Cherevin activates a sinister plan to crash the American economy using the tools of capitalism and the fearsome Russian clandestine service, but unusually with the barbaric tactics of 21st century terrorism.
The filmmakers seem to be saying the millennial generation that the Cold War happened, it’s happening somewhat now, and here’s Chris Pine and Keira Knightley to show you how to wage it. Nearly two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia and America are still polar opposites seeking to undermine the other. The filmmakers have done well in making the geopolitical drama relevant by using A-list actors popular to under-35 audiences and recurring themes from recent headlines about financial networks and Russia’s resurgence.
A discerning viewer might notice that Russia essentially employs al-Qaeda tactics, of which would be ironic considering al-Qaeda’s affiliates have targeted Russia brutally in the past. However, the film provides a good peek into the Russian way of thinking. Russia has had its own history in invoking the Divine in its national consciousness (somewhat less during the Soviet era) and to drum up its nationalist fervor. The desire for glory embodied in Cheverin’s evil machinations is colored with religious fervor. The entire operation is called “Lamentations,” and Cherevin asks for Divine favor for his impending plot in prayer during an Orthodox vesper. The Midwest-based sleeper agents are activated of their tasks during a public reading of Lamentations 2:2 in the local Orthodox parish that the sleepers attend. It reads: “Without pity the Lord has swallowed up all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has torn down the strongholds of Daughter Judah. He has brought her kingdom and its princes down to the ground in dishonor.” In the film, the Orthodox Church is a conduit to “bless” and commence Russia’s operations.
Spy-Fi: For God and Country?
As expected, in Shadow Recruit, the drama and conflict come down to wire (almost literally) in a prevented bomb plot, and Jack Ryan saves the day for America and is married happily ever after. A defeated Cherevin meets his end.
Spy-fi films and literature often seem to operate in a moral vacuum, though in Shadow Recruit the struggle of good versus evil is quite clear. Each character in Shadow Recruit is confronted with the dilemma of trust, vengeance, and other morally vexing questions. Interestingly, God’s name is invoked as a means to an end by antagonists, though God wouldn’t exactly favor the West either. Sadly, this feeds into the trope that God has been used to justify evil deeds worldwide; and in turn becomes an apologetic for unbelief. The truth of the matter is that God has personally said that He will judge all the nations (Isa. 2:4, Mic. 4:3). This is a sobering thought considering our American habit of assuming God is on “our” side.
Shadow Recruit exposes the state of man and his world: a state of constant conflict, both overt and clandestine; power as a means for an end often in evil ways; and the invocation of God’s name in the schemes of men to destroy one another. God even asks rhetorically regarding the nations of the world “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (Ps. 2:1, ESV)
Thankfully, God has not left those unanswered, and has responded personally in promising the executor of justice (Jer. 23:5), personally knows all the secrets of man (Rom. 2:16), and himself puts an end to evil. In other words, mission accomplished.