Donald Trump: Action Hero?
Warning: Contains major spoilers.
Film viewing is always a subjective experience. It's not only what the film depicts, but what the beholder brings to it that matters.
I watched Clear and Present Danger (1994), the third installment in the Jack Ryan film series, at the time of its release. I appreciated Harrison Ford's sterling performance as Ryan and the handsomely mounted action sequences. The details of the plot weren't entirely comprehended by my teenage mind.
I recently had a chance to rewatch the picture, almost three decades later, to realize that it was masterful not just because of Ford's presence or its spectacular elements.
The film begins with the U.S. president implicitly authorizing a covert military operation into Colombia after his friend is killed by men connected to a Colombian drug baron.
Ryan is temporarily promoted as deputy director of Intelligence at the CIA when the current office-holder, who is also Ryan's mentor, is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The president's men are Deep State rogues keen to use Ryan's inexperience and the fact that he is overwhelmed by his new role to seek funds to wage their illegal war against the Colombian drug baron.
When the military operation goes awry, the soldiers are abandoned. A cover-up begins, where swamp rats willingly engage with nefarious elements abroad.
When Jack Ryan smells a rat, he makes it his mission to expose the conspiracy and right the wrongs.
It is impossible not to see the stark similarities between the circumstances of Ryan and President Trump.
Both men are well intentioned and are unexpectedly elevated into a position of power.
Both men are unaware of the power and the corruption within the Deep State. They are patriots who cannot fathom that government agencies could be so corrupt and malicious.
Both men were trapped by the Deep State in the hope that they could be silenced.
The movie ends with Ryan rejecting the U.S. president's quid-pro-quo deal to bury the scandal in exchange for possible career advancements. Ryan instead testifies before Congress to expose the villains.
The Tom Clancy novel, which the movie is based on, ends with most of the villains receiving their comeuppance.
In modern D.C., Ryan would have been relentlessly targeted by the agencies and the media. Every aspect of his life would be baselessly probed, with the presumption of guilt being declared. He would be bankrupt due to legal bills, socially boycotted, and probably jailed.
The film flawlessly depicts the Deep State and the D.C. mentality. Beneath their stoic exterior, these are individuals intoxicated by their delusions of self-importance. They are sanctimonious, entitled, corrupt, mendacious, and self-serving. Despite being public servants, they have contempt for democracy and the public servant.
They regard themselves as gods who can do as they please without any scrutiny. They are unhesitant to misuse taxpayers' funds as their personal piggy banks or government agency tools such as advanced weaponry to further their agenda.
The president and his men have no compunction sending innocent soldiers to their death in an illegal war. Their focus is to build perception. There is very little concern about making any actual progress on the ground.
The film also depicts the swamp's disdain and suspicion for well intentioned outsiders with morals such as Ryan or Trump. Their instinct is to trap the unsuspecting outsider, hoping to buy his silence or co-opt him.
The only criticism to be made is that the screenwriters do not go far enough in depicting the malevolence of the swamp. They are not seen running dedicated operations to target political opponents or dissenters. They are not shown colluding with the media to run smear campaigns against political opponents. They are not shown trying to unseat a democratically elected president or rig a presidential election. The film depicts them only as determined to build a perception to enable easy re-election of their president.
The film also reminds us of devolving audiences' tastes over the decades.
The film was a massive summer blockbuster back then. Yet most of the film depicts people talking within office spaces. Key moments are understated to depict the double-speak in D.C. It's not about what is said, but what is hinted at or left unsaid.
There is no pandering or spoon-feeding. Instead, the film expects the viewer to be intelligent and to pay close attention to grasp the finer details of the intricate plot.
The entire duration of action scenes in the entire film is probably what modern blockbusters have in their opening moments.
Sadly, modern audiences expect blockbusters to be less about plot, character, dialogue, and nuance and more about the display of special effects wizardry.
Harrison Ford deserves plaudits, too — not just for his virtuous acting, but also for willingly slipping into the backdrop when required and playing both overawed and gullible. A superstar of his stature and power could have forced script changes to enhance his part, but it would have hampered the film overall. He didn't.
A movie such as this probably wouldn't be made today by Hollywood, also because it is contrary to the narrative.
Back in the '90s, the narrative was that Republicans were the Deep State party due to the likes of George H.W. Bush, who headed the CIA. The keenness of the Bushes for foreign military interventions defined the party.
The Democrats claimed to be the party of peaceniks who were skeptical of government.
Hence, Hollywood depicted the evil within the swamp in the Jason Bourne series, the Jack Ryan series, etc.
But there is a vast difference between the narrative and the reality.
The policies and actions of recent Democrat presidents make it amply obvious that there is little difference between both parties.
Both parties stand with the Deep State, perhaps out of fear or because it enables them power. Both parties support foreign wars because of their ties to the military-industrial complex.
The Trump presidency inadvertently exposed the charade.
Establishment Republicans and Democrats use identical language to attack President Trump. The very group of Democrats who once claimed to despise the Bushes and their proxies such as John Bolton side with them against Trump. George W. Bush allegedly scoffed at Trump's speech during his inauguration, where he pledged to return power back to the people, pushing for America first.
The decision-makers in Hollywood are devout establishment loyalists; hence, Clear and Present Danger would never be made today.
There is a particularly poignant scene, when Ryan, who is struggling to cope with the rogues of D.C., visits his ailing former boss, Admiral Greer, in the hospital for guidance. Greer reminds Ryan that he reports not to the national security adviser or the president, but instead to the people of the United States.
It is fair to assume that few in D.C. actually remember or care about this.
Despite excelling in every department, Clear and Present Danger doesn't receive the respect and affection that it thoroughly deserves. It isn't just the best on-screen adaptation of a Jack Ryan novel, but one of the finest political thrillers ever to be made.
Trump image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.