If there were an Oscar for Best Hidden Agenda, it would go to Jack Ryan: The Shadow Recruit (dir. Kenneth Branagh). At a time when regulators and citizens try to hold Wall Street accountable for the 2008 recession and the CIA accountable for torture, Jack Ryan turns Wall Street into a victim and the CIA into a model husband. It does so with all the slick im/plausibility of a thriller—and it uses the Bible to boost its case.
This seemingly nondescript body-count film deploys the Bible, trust in national defenses, and a restored heteronormative relationship in very rote ways to signify national superiority and solidity. It works hard to shore up national sovereignty and to valorize national defenses even as it promotes the economic systems that exceed and undermine national sovereignty. In this, the film becomes a pulpy example of a larger pattern of scriptural citation that obscures and promotes tensions between market forces and nationalism, dynamics I discuss in depth in my book, The Babylon Complex (Oxford University Press, 2014).
A reboot of the older Jack Ryan series—based on Tom Clancy novels like Hunt for Red October—Shadow Recruit uses an all new screenplay by Adam Cozad and David Koepp. Still, the film is highly reminiscent of the earlier series’ conservative patriotism, and Clancy’s avowed “God and country and family” Catholicism.
As the story goes, Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a covert CIA financial analyst who uncovers a Russian terror plot to blow up Wall Street and destroy the U.S. economy in order to send the nation instantly into a second great depression. Members of the Russian terror cell are activated in church, when the Russian Orthodox priest reads: “He has torn down the strongholds of the daughter Judah. He has brought her kingdom and its princes down to the ground in dishonor” (Lamentations 2:2).
The Bible-activation-code turns biblical grief over the (past) conquest of Judah by Babylon into a filmic prophecy about the imminent future. The Bible’s ever-ready protagonist-villain pair—Judah and Babylon—triggers that long-imagined connection between the chosen people and the United States. Wall Street becomes a potential holy victim, and Russia, in a call-back to actual Cold War apocalyptic discourses, implicitly becomes Babylon. Meanwhile, the second great depression remains a future—not ongoing—occurrence.
The film shifts attention away from the lack of accountability for the 2008 crash and the increasing disparity that followed. Compare, for instance, JPMorgan’s reward to Jamie Dimon of $20 million in 2013 with Barack Obama’s 2014 aspiration to raise the minimum wage to just $10.10/hour ($21,000 a year, working full time with no vacation). Instead of facing this disparity and Wall Street’s role in economic hardship, Jack Ryan imagines economic threats coming from outside the nation.
Put another way: while real world corporate control and the accumulation of profit impedes our national ability to care for citizens, the film suggests the stock market must be protected lest it become one more tool of other nations’ hateful terrorist attempts to damage U.S. citizens. It imagines a world of discrete and autonomous nations, even as it celebrates the marketplace of transnational global capital.
If biblically fetishizing and exonerating Wall Street is a chief outcome, the film’s sexual politics also help fictively prop up national defenses in the face of transnational market threats and to absolve the military industrial complex. The film works to reimagine the CIA as husband-protector of the nation.
Of course, it must first verbally distance the CIA from practices like waterboarding. As Ryan’s recruiter Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) tells him, their unit doesn’t do such things—even though in a shockingly visceral scene Ryan kills his first (African) attacker by drowning him. With this “not-waterboarding/necessary-defense” catalyst, Ryan’s covert activities are simultaneously valorized and put under threat, to the degree that he must finally tell his increasingly estranged partner Cathy (Keira Knightly) that he is a CIA operative.
Her response? A breathless “Thank God.”
On the narrative level Cathy’s declaration of faith signifies that her fears of Ryan’s infidelity are unfounded and that she can marry him; on the ideological level, the CIA shifts from an agency that might be accused of betraying national values to one for which we should be thankful. Ryan’s subsequent protection of Cathy and Wall Street reinforces the point.
Perhaps because Jack Ryan seems almost unworthy of comment, reviewers have almost entirely failed to remark on its political messaging, except to note it as a part of a spate of conservative winter films. This oversight may be conditioned by years of Tom Clancy novels, or maybe it’s because the film is so successful at naturalizing its own efforts through its uninventive use of the Bible, repaired romance, and a heroized CIA to misrepresent the threat to the nation.