“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”:  propaganda dressed as entertainment

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of Ruskies? The Shadow Recruit knows!

Reactionary espionage novelist Tom Clancy may have died last year, but his heroic CIA agent, Jack Ryan, lives on, as does the right-wing pro-CIA Military-Industrial-Intelligence-Entertainment Complex’s agitprop. To be sure, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Paramount’s reboot of the Clancy-derived, highly lucrative Ryan film franchise, is a slickly made, entertaining piece of movie-making full of the usual suspects found in spy movies: motorcycle and car chases galore, assassins, gunfire, dastardly villains hell bent on world domination, a little romance and all those other endless spy movie clichés. Shadow Recruit is also a sophisticated cinematic piece of propaganda masquerading under the guise of mass entertainment.         

In this latest installment of the Ryan franchise (jump cut: definition of a Hollywood franchise – beating a dead horse into the ground until viewers wise up and quit buying tickets to see these sequels and remakes) Jumping Jack Smash is tepidly played by 33-year-old Chris Pine, who previously played Captain Kirk in another profitable motion picture franchise, Star Trek. In the 2014 chapter of the spy series Jack is an Afghan War veteran – never mind that Alec Baldwin played Ryan in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October and Harrison Ford started portraying Ryan in 1992’s Patriot Games, when Pine was a mere wisp of a lad presumably pining after superstardom in empty-headed action flicks.

The actor may be new but the premise is tired and old, reviving Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow, as America’s enemy is the same in Shadow Recruit as it was almost a quarter century ago in The Hunt for Red October. There may be much that’s objectionable in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, from the repression of gays, Ukrainians, Pussy Riot, Greenpeace and so on, but none of that is alluded to in this simpleminded yarn with a convoluted plot harkening back to the deepest, darkest days of the Cold War between the USA and USSR.

In a bit of clever central casting, real-life Soviet defector/ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov plays a Kremlin killer in a cameo. Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) portrays dastardly oligarch Viktor Cherevin, a stereotypical Ruskie out to stage terrorist attacks on the good ol’ USA and to topple our economy. It doesn’t matter that the Ruskies have traded communism in for corporatist ideology – they’re STILL the bad guys in this hackneyed plot extolling the virtues of the CIA, as latter day Cold Warriors battle it out from Moscow to Manhattan. It doesn’t matter that as America’s ally during World War II, 20 million Soviets died, and then their approximation of socialism failed and the Russians “embraced” the private enterprise system: They remain our implacable enemy. I mean, who does a Ruskie have to screw to catch a break from America?!

Speaking of which, the extremely gifted Keira Knightley squanders her talents playing Cathy Muller, Jack’s nurse-cum-live-in-lover-cum-damsel-in-distress. She was far superior in the 2011 Freud-versus-Jung film A Dangerous Method, but I suppose there’s a method to her career madness. The cast includes Kevin Costner as the CIA covert ops agent Thomas Harper. (By the way, the characters’ globetrotting from Manhattan to Moscow and beyond via commercial airliners in what seems to be mere hours – putting the Concorde to shame – is inherently incredible, as is the fact that these jet-setters never get jet lag.)

In between munching popcorn audiences should be aware of Shadow Recruit’s real shadowy message: The CIA are heroic good guys who are also technical whiz kids – their supposed high-tech prowess is intended to impress and intimidate opponents – saving the world from the baddies. Shadow Recruit is the latest recruit in what I called the intelligence community’s “Operation Image Control” in my May 2013 cover story for CounterPunch Magazine called “Hollywood’s Year of Living Clandestinely.” Jack Ryan has enlisted to fight to make the world safe for U.S. imperialism, along with: the ABC mini-series The Assets, about real-life CIA double agent/traitor Aldrich Ames; the just launched Intelligence TV series about a bionic agent; plus Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Blacklist series that premiered on network TV in the fall. On the big screen the FBI prominently features in American Hustle, about the 1970s Abscam scandal.

Make no mistake about it: With the possible exception of American Hustle, which is critical of the FBI, these big and small screen productions appear to be intended to project positive images of the CIA, NSA, etc., as part of the Military-Industrial-Intelligence-Entertainment Complex’s never ending campaign to win hearts, minds and viewers. This propaganda barrage aims to hoodwink taxpayers and, in particular, is a counter-offensive aimed against the revelations of the super-surveillance state by whistle-blowers.

In particular, The Assets may be intended as an attack on Edward Snowden, who is rather stupidly (or perhaps, I should say, quite cleverly) likened to Ames by feckless pundits/dopes/dupes, although Ames traded CIA secrets for rubles, while Snowden does not appear to have cashed in on his revelations about the Orwellian NSA hyper-surveillance state that he is, rather patriotically and at great risk to himself, warning us all about. Snowden, of course, is ensconced in icy exile in Mother Russia – and isn’t it hilarious how the imperialists and their media lackeys use this against Snowden, while conveniently forgetting that Washington revoked his passport and even forced Bolivian President Evo Morales’ jet down in an effort to prevent Snowden from possibly leaving Russia.   

The Central Intelligence Agency definitely does have an entertainment liaison officer and actively seeks to influence movie and TV productions for propagandistic purposes. I asked Paramount if the CIA was involved in any way with Shadow Recruit but, as to be expected when dealing with the shadowy world of cloak and dagger, got no response. While they want to know everything about you, they don’t want you to know anything about them and how they operate behind the scenes.

But consider what former CIA officer Bob Baer (George Clooney played Baer in 2005’s Syriana, which was based on Baer’s exploits) said in my CounterPunch expose about an earlier Jack Ryan iteration: “I’m pretty sure Ben Affleck was able to get meetings with those in the CIA … He was in [2002’s] The Sum of All Fears, a heavily assisted text by the CIA. They were involved in everything from set design to script review to meeting with the actors, director, writers … to shape their image of that Agency. [Tom Clancy’s] Jack Ryan series has always been more positive in terms of its depiction of the CIA than other film franchises, but … Sum of All Fears of all Jack Ryan films is the most positive in its depiction.” Affleck, of course, went on to star in and direct 2012’s pro-CIA Argo, which – for the first time in Academy Award history – had its Best Picture Oscar winner announced by a sitting First Lady, Michelle Obama, live at the White House, surrounded by military personnel.

The fact that Kenneth Branagh, once regarded as the heir to Laurence Olivier’s throne as the interpreter of the Bard’s classics, has now stooped so low to make craven pro-CIA propaganda is truly, well, a Shakespearean tragedy.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit opens Jan. 17. Viewer beware!

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley
2014, PG-13, 105 min.

The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.

Photo: Internet Movie Database


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.