Smart Watch: "Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan," Ava DuVernay's "August 28" and more top TV this week

John Krasinski takes on Tom Clancy. Plus, spend time with DuVernay's short film, and Steve James takes us to school

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 25, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)


Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” arrives as the crucible through which America is passing, and with all the ease of a massive kidney stone through Hank Hill’s narrow urethra, forces us to question the state of our collective moral fiber.

Our current commander-in-chief is implicated in violating campaign finance laws. Donald Trump’s lawyer confirmed under oath that he paid hush money to a porn star and a Playboy model to keep extramarital affairs from becoming public during the 2016 election cycle.

To distract us from this, Trump tweeted out incendiary falsehoods about South Africa, originating from far-right white nationalists. While all this havoc is breaking out, children of immigrants remain separated from their parents. Puerto Rico struggles to recover from Hurricane Maria nearly a year after it tore apart the island. The drinking water remains unsafe in Flint, Michigan. The list goes on.

Needless to say, the urge to rip into an air guitar solo of “America! F—k Yeah!” is, one ventures to guess, close to an all-time low.

Given this, the rah-rah jingoism of “Jack Ryan” might not fit the mood, despite the finest efforts of co-showrunners Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland to keep it at an acceptable pitch.

But who can say how we’ll all be feeling by the time it debuts on Amazon Prime Friday? A lot can happen in the space of a week, and one can never underestimate the healing power of watching buildings explode.

Here’s what I can confirm about this latest incarnation of Clancy’s superhero desk jockey: John Krasinski acquits himself nicely. This shouldn't be a shocker, since Krasinski has more or less successfully transitioned into the runnin’ and gunnin’ marketplace thanks to his work in the horror sleeper “A Quiet Place” and “13 Hours” before that.

But as Jack Ryan, TV viewers may see more than a few shades of Jim Halpert from “The Office,” given the Ryan character's post-9/11 re-imagining as a figure at the earliest stages of his career in intelligence and national security. A few scenes in “Jack Ryan” play up Krasinski’s deadpan comedy mannerisms, like the quiet bewilderment that plays around his eyes as he presses his mouth into a thin line of stress. This comes out especially in the scenes depicting how out-of-step his Jack is with office politics, and seeing it provides a welcome relief from the mission’s tension.

And here, Ryan’s first line of defense in any conversation is to identify himself as analyst, a guy with a desk job. His superiors, including CIA Deputy Director of Operations Nathan Singer (Timothy Hutton), initially underestimate him, which he utilizes to his advantage — often at first by force as opposed to choice.

It helps that we know from all the other men who have played him – Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine and even Ben Affleck (for crying out loud) — that Jack Ryan has a deep bench of skills this series only begins to tap within its first eight episodes.

That said, Krasinski’s field officer is initially a little less of Pine’s man of action, although both are post-9/11 versions of Clancy’s character. He’s closer in resemblance to off-duty Jack Bauer than James Bond, and definitely in a different league than Jason Bourne. Which is acceptable, since this leaves the actor and character plenty of growing room — a good thing, given the show has already been picked up for a second season.

One of the pleasures of watching “Jack Ryan” is to experience Krasinski’s stupendous onscreen chemistry with "The Wire" alum Wendell Pierce, playing his boss James Greer. Greer and Ryan work well together, but some of the most worthwhile scenes in the episodes provided to critics are shouldered by Pierce and him alone. Pierce brings a singular energy and heat to all of his performances, but here he crushes the challenge to marry muscular action and gravitas, and he’s clearly enjoying the excitement of his task.

But then, all of the performances in “Jack Ryan” transform what would be a rather typical military-hero-hunts-nefarious-brown-terrorists yarn into a series that leaves you curious about the fates of a number of unrelated people, including those related to the antagonists.

Humanizing the enemy, including establishing understandable reasons that they wish to do harm to Western nations, is far from unique to “Jack Ryan.” The writers do a splendid job of developing Jack’s adversary Suleiman, but the actor playing him, Ali Suliman, lends a charisma and complexity to him that at times lures viewers into forgetting how ruthless he is until his interactions with his wife Hanin (Dina Shihabi, in an excellent performance) remind us.

If Suliman is fascinating, Shihabi is even more so, especially when her storyline essentially transforms her from silent, disapproving accessory to woman in peril. Other characters aren’t as convincingly written, such as John Magaro’s tormented drone pilot whose B-plot takes unbelievable turns on the way to its payoff, or Abbie Cornish’s Cathy Mueller, a doctor Ryan finds reasons to run into even though he’s busily attempting to prevent another world-shifting catastrophe.

Nothing about the season-long mission unwinding in the episodes sent to critics feels terribly distinct from high velocity intrigue playing through shows such as “Homeland,” “Deep State” or “24.” But to some people, that may be a sales pitch. Clancy’s hero was born in the Reagan era, when our concept of American righteousness seemed less muddy, at least to mainstream culture. Krasinski’s Jack Ryan is a distant echo of that image, an able soldier who only wants to do the right thing and who bucks authority to do so. That message might have some comfort both in spite of and because of the state of affairs.

Or to put it in simpler terms, it’s a bingeworthy action series led by a superhuman office worker. Need some people to root for? Krasinski, Pierce and “Jack Ryan” have you covered.

READ MORE: The bizarro world of Steven Seagal: Hero in the movies, villain in real life

* * *

“America to Me,” Sunday at 10 p.m., Starz

Another way of reconciling ourselves with a very hard week — or month, or couple of years — is to stare at the very thing that ails us without blinking. To fulfill that purpose, and to see what may be one of the most important shows to debut this year, do not miss a moment of this 10-part documentary series.

“America to Me” may sound familiar to those who recall R.J. Cutler’s unscripted series “American High,” which aired in 2001, or “Yearbook,” a 1991 documentary series that aired on Fox long before the subjects of Steve James' non-fiction work were even thought of.

James, who directed the multiple award-winning 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” chose to follow students at Oak Park and River Forest High School with the specific intention of examining where the good intentions of diversity slam against systemic and societal shortcomings. Indeed, if you want to see the racial problems of America writ large play out with honesty and empathy, just watch this show.

Oak Park and River Forest is a public school built on the border of a working-class West side neighborhood in Chicago and Oak Park, a wealthier community that prides itself on its relative progressivism. Administrators boast that it is the highest performing and most diverse school in the country. Through data and via in-classroom scenarios, the audience views the ways that the school’s curriculum is failing these kids, largely due to internalized bias among its staff and a refusal to confront longstanding issues with race.

In following 12 students at the school over the course of one year, James and his four-person segment team lay bare the school’s challenges coherently and with poignance. There are educators who take steps to confront the problem and who even add lessons about social inequality to their lessons, but who are thwarted nevertheless. And while white students excel, students of color fall further behind.

“America to Me” displays data to back up its narrative, but this takes a back seat to its more powerful strategy of empowering the students to tell the school’s story through their own frame of reference. Much to the credit of James and his team, the series carefully establishes each subject's uniqueness, thereby showing “one size fits all” and “all lives matter” approaches simply won’t work.

In any documentary series there exists the tendency to distance one’s self by transforming the real life subjects into character, perhaps downplaying the stakes of what we see them living through. But the kids “America to Me” introduces to us are so wholly and completely themselves that emotional separation from their stories is impossible.

Something inside you twists at witnessing the frustration of Charles Donalson, a gifted poet who chafes, visibly, at seeing his white peers treated differently than he and other black students. Biracial teens Grant Lee and Chanti Reif show the predicament of wrestling with identities in a time of life defined by expectation.

Extraordinary as they are, “America to Me” takes care to round out their stories by spending time with their teachers, parents, members of the school board, even the school’s security guards. In doing so, we come to understand how these students are viewed by the adults in their lives, which in turn grants us a fuller sense of the advantages they have as well as the height of the obstacles in the path.

Teacher Jessica Stovall, a biracial woman, makes lessons about social inequality part of her classroom experience, without the support of school administrators. In a school that’s 55 percent white, and where the student population self-segregates, an act that should be considered a necessity is instead discouraged, which makes her passion acutely moving; she sees the success of her students, especially one who is intentionally underperforming, as a matter of life or death.

Even with all of its weight, however, “America to Me” never feels tragic or too heavy to handle; in fact, its tight focus on the small moments experienced by these teenagers leavens the series with sweetness and compassion. The larger challenges these students face still pale in comparison to the confusion of what to do with a first crush or the turmoil inherit to defining one’s sexual orientation.

Then there is just the pure loveliness of watching Terrence Moore, an introverted special education student, surprise his mother with a lovely gift in the midst of watching him struggle to stay afloat. Contending with society’s ills may be a daily task at Oak Park and River Forest High School, but for a teen’s life, that’s nothing in comparison to a high school dance. “America to Me” treats both of these aspects with import and care, and the net result is a compelling, potent education.

* * *

August 28: A Day in the Life of a People,” Tuesday at 7 p.m., OWN

The television debut of “August 28” follows its year at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

And it is a testament to the facility with which Ava Duvernay makes stories live and breathe, bringing history directly to viewers and gently placing right in our hands. That she does this by connecting six historical moments that happened on the same date, but in different eras, and in a lithe 22 minutes, is a shining miracle.

Each gorgeously filmed and edited segment holds a unique emotional resonance with a unifying spirit. Regina King stars in a commemoration of the first radio airplay from Motown Records on August 28, 1961 with The Marvelettes' “Please Mr Postman.” Glynn Turman leads a portrayal that memorializes British Parliament's passing of The Slavery Abolition Act on August 28, 1833, with David Oyelowo and Don Cheadle dramatizing a scene dedicated to honoring Emmett Till, who was lynched on August 28, 1955.

And all of these connections are made even more sublime with accompanying music or passages by black writers; a reading of Zora Neale Hurston as an exchange between a woman (Angela Bassett) and a man (Andre Holland) eager to witness Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech during the massive March on Washington on August 28, 1963 grants a fresh spirit to a moment long canonized into the most diluted renderings of history.

“August 28” also memorializes Hurricane Katrina’s descent upon New Orleans on August 28, 2005, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw starring in that harrowing depiction; and then-Senator Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination for the presidency on August 28, 2008, the witnessing of which is dramatized by Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Ealy.

DuVernay’s film is a permanent installation at the Smithsonian, but if you have OWN, you’ll be grateful to take its journey without being made to travel.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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