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Reactionary GIFs

When a sitcom boy becomes an action man

Season two of Amazon Prime Video’s Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan ends by demonstrating the disinfectant power of sunlight. Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst created by Clancy in the 1980s and played in this latest iteration by John Krasinski, has come to liberate a prison camp built to house political opponents of Nicolás Reyes, the president of Venezuela and a stand-in for Nicolás Maduro. Ryan uploads the footage, emails it to several general “tip” email addresses for news agencies, and, seemingly within minutes, the story has spread—the Venezuelan prison camp is all over international news, and, in response, Reyes shuts down his country’s ongoing election.

At best, this plot point can be chalked up to a degree of red, white, and blue naivete. For years, mainstream American media has pushed the myth that if we just exposed human rights abuses (committed by other countries, of course), the perpetrators would be held to account. But it’s hard to ignore that the supposedly abnormal footage captured by Ryan doesn’t seem all that dire compared to, say, images from Abu Ghraib, Gaza, or any number of sites where civilians have been murdered by American drones. One of Ryan’s superiors chuckles, having found documents incriminating Reyes: “You gotta love countries that still put shit down on paper.” The implication being, of course, that no American intelligence agency would be that stupid. 

Only one person on Jack Ryan is really dumb enough to believe that the CIA has Venezuela’s best interest at heart: Ryan himself. And the only reason he can convincingly buy into the liberal pitch for intervention might be the puppy-like charisma of the man who plays him.

Krasinski, who became famous on the back of his performance as the snarky, relatable Jim Halpert on The Office, has managed to keep a few different career tracks going at once. There’s the romantic lead, present in License To Wed, Away We Go, and It’s Complicated. There’s the would-be serious artist, the guy whose directorial debut was an adaptation of the David Foster Wallace short story collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and who, early in his career, starred in a Gregg Araki movie. But increasingly, the dominant strain of John Krasinski’s output is “selfless, unassuming action guy.”

Turn the phrase “nuclear Venezuela” over in your mind for a moment, like a smooth pebble.

In 2015, Krasinski got jacked, according to Men’s Health and very good at sex, according to John Krasinski. The following year, he starred in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, a movie whose politics were neatly contained in its title and the timing of its release in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. His 2018 directorial success A Quiet Place posited Krasinski as the self-sacrificing patriarch of a garrisoned family trying to survive in a world where monsters kill anything that makes a sound. And now in Jack Ryan, he stars as the title character, a stockbroker-turned-professor-turned-CIA analyst-turned-president, a hero famously beloved by Ronald Reagan.

The second season of Jack Ryan premiered on Halloween, but it made waves back in September for the absurdity of its premise. A heavily produced trailer revealed that this time around, Ryan would be confronting the most major threat on the world stage: nuclear Venezuela. Turn the phrase “nuclear Venezuela” over in your mind for a moment, like a smooth pebble. Imagine it showing up in memes posted by your relatives on Facebook, or slithering out of Sean Hannity’s mouth on television. It’s a pairing of words that feels like the logical, Trumpified endpoint of Jack Ryan’s original Reagan-era arc, a literally demented premise that manages to express a core animus of the American right as it’s developed over the last thirty years.

Without delving too deeply into the ideological morass of this season of streaming television, Jack Ryan’s nuclear Venezuela plot contains some truly astonishing moments, using the fictional assassination of a U.S. Senator to gin up anti-Venezuela sentiment—the timing of which at least gives the impression of trying to launder a real-life, U.S.-backed attempted coup. While the camera tracks Ryan filming the conditions in Reyes’s prison camp in the season two finale, the episode cuts away to another American, gazing balefully at the worn photo of the family of a killed American soldier. (The nonwhite actors in this scene are largely credited with titles like “Prisoner #1.”)

Ryan, an analyst with a heart of gold and abs of steel, is the purest distillation of Krasinski’s onscreen persona. As written by Clancy and depicted by a range of varyingly masculine men (Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, and Ben Affleck), Ryan is a desk jockey, a paper-pusher with no thirst for glory who just happens to be thrust repeatedly into life-or-death situations where he needs to shoot people or throw grenades or have forced romantic chemistry with mysterious women keeping spycraft secrets. It’s all part of his job, just another day at The Office. And make no mistake: watching Jack Ryan feels like work. For its star, maybe that’s all it is.

In an essay for BuzzFeed, critic Alison Wilmore boiled down the politics of Krasinski’s career choices, reading even his straightforwardly political roles as a sort of abdication: “It doesn’t come across as an affirmation of values so much as it does a desire to not think about difficult stuff.” Though Krasinski himself may not share the conservative values of his characters (Wilmore notes that his wife, the actress Emily Blunt, has frequently publicly criticized President Trump), he clearly has no compunction courting the conservative demographic. In interviews given before the premiere of Jack Ryan’s first season, Krasinski described the CIA as “apolitical” and “diverse,” an honorable institution whose objectives are merely “protecting people and getting to the truth of the matter”—and that just so happens to have a long history of both disastrous intervention in Central America and, along with the FBI, the infiltration and destruction of social movements in the United States. (Not that this history is ever seriously grappled with on the show, even as CIA characters begin to interfere in Reyes’s election.) Jack Ryan leans into this reading of the CIA as a post-racial fantasy, including shots of CIA analysts in hijabs and inserting a few scenes where a character played by Wendell Pierce reconnects with his faith. Pierce plays Jim Greer, Ryan’s superior at the CIA, who has converted to Islam.

Perhaps none of this is a surprise, considering that ex-CIA agents consulted on the series, and current agents read its scripts before allowing production on the agency’s campus. Though executive producer Carlton Cuse claims the CIA gave no notes, it doesn’t seem like they needed to. At one point in the new season, supplemental text explains the ways in which the operatives are trying to “counteract the Reyes campaign of disinformation.”

In several ways, Krasinski’s arc from restive everyman to accidental hero mirrors that of his fellow lovable-sitcom-schlub-turned-guy-with-gun, Chris Pratt. Pratt, who came to prominence playing the sweet, dumb man-child Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, is now a buff leading man who stars in the Marvel franchise as Guardians of the Galaxy’s Peter Quill and in the Jurassic World franchise as the guy who does the pose with the raptors. Though Pratt’s action hero persona is a bit more mainstream than Krasinski’s (he’s apparently charismatic enough to be cast as the tentpole of a big studio movie), their characters are similar. Krasinski’s action roles are centered on ties to other people—friends, family, countrymen—that justify doing what needs to be done. Pratt’s, meanwhile, center on developing those attachments, on goofy, distracted young men realizing that it might be worth settling down and getting involved in the local Chamber of Commerce. Like Krasinski, Pratt has also played a Navy SEAL—this time in Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about torture.

But where Krasinski tactfully avoids talking about politics, Pratt appears to be a true believer, or at least more interested in making conservative values a part of his brand. While he donated money to President Obama’s reelection campaign several years ago (and did an extremely confusing tweet about Clint Eastwood to boot), he also wants you to know that he met his new wife, Katherine Schwarznegger, daughter of Arnold, at church—the culmination of a religious journey that started with a fateful encounter and a brief spell volunteering with Jews For Jesus and ended with him firmly established as one of Hollywood’s most high-profile evangelicals. Where Krasinski acts out the fantasy of the American family on screen, Pratt does it in real life, or what passes for it when you’re incredibly famous. He refuses to be tread on, and, like his father-in-law, might just run for political office one day. (Pratt recently shared a poem he “found” about how both sides of the political spectrum are bad: “Ding dongs on the far right fringes / squeaking mad like rusty hinges. / Ding dongs from the far left squad / fixed on answers outside God.”)

In addition to having gone from as close to a default “guy” in entertainment as you can get to, well, another kind of default guy, both Krasinski and Pratt are perhaps two of the most heavily GIF-ed people on the internet. Their respective sitcoms were both mockumentaries in which the characters often emoted directly to the camera. Now that replies to tweets are themselves cameras, or at least able to draw from a deep well of animated images, Krasinski and Pratt’s faces have become ubiquitous in situations where we are the ones forced to sit, watch, and react—which is to say, while we’re scrolling the timeline. There, they are, literally stuck in the middle—of extremism, of the nasty business of politics—unable to do much of anything.

If you can plausibly turn a sitcom punching bag into an agent of war, it makes for good propaganda.

As Lauren Michele Jackson, a professor of English at Northwestern University, has covered extensively, reaction GIFs are a medium capable of expressing a wide variety of complex affects and emotions. In a landscape where you can pull anything from Jude Law winking as The Young Pope to a psychedelic, animated brain achieving enlightenment, the overuse of The Office and Parks and Rec GIFs are perhaps indicative of their universal applicability. Jackson argues that GIFs turn their subjects into puppets of a sort; in other words, they serve a similar function as movie stardom. In this case, what’s being animated is Krasinski and Pratt’s reserve of appearing earnest and likable, a resource that Hollywood has harvested and placed behind the barrel of a gun.

Jack Ryan is an utterly outdated character—the idea of the CIA as purely good-hearted dudes working as honor-bound civil servants is laughable to both leftists and conservatives, now afraid of the so-called deep state. The series’s conception of America, like Ryan himself, feels like a relic of the Cold War, a period during which a good-guys-versus-bad-guys conception of the world reigned supreme in the culture, whether it was being depicted in movies like Red Dawn or Clancy’s books themselves. Even now, the Department of Defense has its own Hollywood liaison office.

Entertainment strives to be genial, inviting, and, yes, entertaining, to as broad an audience as possible, and it’s a sinister trick to make something with such drastic human consequences as American intervention in Latin America feel fun and flighty. But that’s the appeal of Jack Ryan, a more or less nice guy, and why it makes so much sense that Krasinski’s and Pratt’s faces are now the ones on the puppets. If you can plausibly turn a sitcom punching bag into an agent of war, it makes for good propaganda.

Though Jack Ryan shoots a lot of people and eventually becomes incredibly powerful later in Clancy’s book series—like everything else, he assumes the presidency basically by accident, but by gosh, who else could do the job?—he is still a sort of everyman, a good-hearted guy whose intelligence and iron sense of justice allow him to thrive in a Cold War snakepit. Krasinski’s updated version has already been renewed for a third season, this time with a new showrunner. It feels safe to say that, even with this change behind the camera, Krasinski will continue to be a particular sort of endearing. Jack Ryan will continue to go around killing people who are mostly not American. And the CIA will continue offering its friendly eye on every script.