Jack Ryan has the distinct honor among cinematic spies of being…not that great. He’s been in more films than Jason Bourne and as many as Ethan Hunt (once Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation hits theaters next month), but after being shuffled from actor to actor over the course of the franchise the character has lost a ton of steam. Part of this is due to the caliber of actor (from Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford [x2] to Ben Affleck to Chris Pine) and part of this is due to the fact that Ryan’s less “spy” and more “data analyst”. That’s not a cop-out, though: Jack Ryan is really just an analyst. It’s the increasing need to shove Ryan into spy territory that begs the comparison to other spies (‘magine dat), so by the time Shadow Recruit came out Jack Ryan wasn’t a mild-mannered systems professional but a sexy gun-wielding wannabe.
And hey: if you want us to make that comparison, Mr. Powers That Be, then with the ghost of Tom Clancy as our witness we’ll do so gleefully. Or not so gleefully, as it were, because no one’s having any fun at all with Shadow Recruit. Why should we? We established in our recent review of the fantastic Quiller Memorandum that a great spy movie doesn’t even need to have a spy as the main character, so forcing Ryan to be more badass than bookworm doesn’t do much for credibility in that arena. Spoon-feeding every plot point doesn’t help either, and again with Quiller the brilliance was in the sense that any John Doe walking across the screen could be a villain; the poster tagline for Shadow Recruit is a flaccidly unoriginal TRUST NO ONE…but then we get nineteen shots of the hotel maid looking suspicious, so it turns out we’re informed exactly who we should and should not trust.
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There is a scene in The Imitation Game where a young Alan Turing is introduced to a book of codes and cyphers by his classmate and friend Christopher. The significance of this moment is obvious (Look, it’s the exact moment Alan Turing became the Alan Turing we all know!!!). But Graham Moore’s script plays this moment as a different kind of discovery. There’s no glint in Alan’s eye as he catches a glimpse of a future in which he fathers computer science while cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code, wins the war, and is later played beautifully by Benedict Cumberbatch. Instead, Alan recognizes a comparison between cyphers and the way people talk. Turing, who is thought to have had Aspergers Syndrome, cannot process metaphors and irony because of his extreme literalism. The concept of coded communication gives him a better understanding of how people don’t say what they mean and don’t mean what they say. This, not his mathematical genius, is his gateway into code-breaking, and it’s one of many beautiful nuances in the film.
Unfortunately, the rest of The Imitation Game, like Turing, is overly formulaic. The film adapts Andrew Hodges’ biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, about the mathematical savant who was the biggest contributor to deciphering Nazi communications with his cryptanalytic machine. This true story could have been an otherwise simple and inspiring tale about an extraordinary Brit, alongside the likes of The Theory of Everything and The King’s Speech, if it weren’t for one major tarnish. In 1952, Turing was convicted of indecency (read: homosexual acts) and made to take hormone treatments in place of a prison sentence. He killed himself two years later. This understandably requires a different kind of film.
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