Note: Spoilers ahead.
This is another sad depiction of South America as rendered by Hollywood; it took until the last two episodes of Season 2 of Jack Ryan (available on Amazon Prime), unfortunately, for the story to become the least bit realistic. Jack and the remaining members of an American armed team reach a covert Venezuelan government prison camp in the jungle, seeing a mass grave and the remaining political prisoners near death, collapsing even as they were being freed. Meanwhile, the President of Venezuela, Nicolas Reyes, played by Spanish actor Jordi Molla (whom some Westerners might remember as King Philip of Spain in Elizabeth: The Golden Age), in seeing that footage of the camp has been transmitted to media internationally, forces the closure of the polls for the presidential election, soldiers tasked with the duty claiming that his lead against his opponent, Gloria Bonalde (played by Colombiana, Cristina Umaña) is so “unsurmountable” that no more votes need to be considered. Terrorizing the voters with machine-gun fire, they clear the building.
These are the sole scenes that rang the least bit true. Like Netflix’s Triple Frontier, which was supposed to have been about the tri-border region (the borders among Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil) but became a heist film featuring American retired SOF — when this area is known not just for its trafficking of various kinds (weapons, humans, narcotics) and its abject lawlessness, and which was a major hotbed of terrorist training camps back in the day (and perhaps even is to the present, including groups from the Middle East) —Jack Ryan in Season 2 missed one hell of an opportunity to tell a real story and instead went for the usual Hollywood machinations.
Instead of mentioning Margarita Island off the coast of Venezuela’s mainland, which is the center of the most illicit deals imaginable among the usual suspects among the most powerful international criminal actors, governments, their proxies, and organizations — or the fact that what was originally Colombia’s oldest (if least covered in the Western press) major non-state armed group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) has taken over half of Venezuela in part as President Maduro’s proxy (only to be joined by FARC dissidents who did not stick around for a malingering peace process, including Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) in Colombia) — or that the Chinese, Russians, and Cubans deserved more than just cursory mention for their support of the Venezuelan president as long as he chooses to support their interests — this was only mentioned as some grudging, but brief context — Jack Ryan chose instead to make this a cliche of well-trodden ground Hollywood chooses consistently rather than getting to the heart of a more insidious, multi-faceted, multi-layered mire in which American interests are less about Democracy than a re-invigorated Monroe Doctrine for the purposes of U.S. multinational corporate interests. Never mind, no other world power’s interests are any different.
(U.S. interests in Venezuela are far from benign— using human rights and a democratic face as often a cloying veneer — when the goal, ultimately, is actually to make easier international development (and associated debt bondage) and multinational corporate interests — including competing for natural resource rights among whom to the “winner” go the spoils.)
While this season of Jack Ryan does mention some of these things in the first episode when Jack is shown giving a lecture on — you guessed it — Venezuela — and the interests by myriad actors in a massive capacity to tap the world’s largest oil supply as well as similarly massive mineral deposits — this is context glossed over ultimately for the sake of action and American benevolence and heroism, in which, once again, the U.S. saves the day for a developing country via the heroism of a few good men.
As the daughter and great-granddaughter of veterans — the first Wetherholts fought in the American Revolution, and the last, my father, was a veteran of Korea — I want to desperately believe in this for its own sake. And I cannot and will not ever fault American veterans for the sometimes mercenary and ill-planned actions of the U.S. Government — which often serves itself and its allies more than fellow Americans. However, in having been in various developing countries in which the U.S. is not seen by the people of such countries since WWII in the most favorable light, the realities here needed to be just as pronounced. Enigmatic forces, spies, and mercenaries seem to be the usual fare for Hollywood, but the broad and simplistic strokes are solely good for entertainment — not for offering any sense of more nuanced reality, which is important in this day and age necessitating information integrity. For this, maybe it’s good to go back to John Le Carre — nuance at its best in terms of Western-proffered examinations of international reality in such film and television adaptations such as The Constant Gardener, or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy…or even the most recent, The Night Manager. Tom Clancy has written blockbusters for a reason — and Hollywood has responded in kind.
Indeed, as an American who has been forced to contend with the realities of our presence and the interests of our government in far too many places, I would love for us to go back to founding principles of Natural Law and the Enlightenment; however, the 20th and 21st Century have shown that superpowers, when they give a damn more about self-interest of the few rather than the well-being of the many, are just as mercenary as any of the old colonial empires, and they act accordingly. They, like Hollywood, miss the point in being blinded, ultimately, to necessary context by its own behemoth interests. Power is not monolithic forever; it is made of shifting sands and the vagaries of various climates at any given moment, and what underlies its interests determines longer-term success — including the definition of such success. Lay waste to a people and/or support their oppressors for your own interests, and there will be consequences. People are ultimately tribal: they remember. Be a good guy once, and it will be quickly forgotten if you yourself forget and decide to commit acts of malfeasance in the instances following. And in this information age, no one ever forgets.
To see Venezuela as it is shown in this season, it has, unfortunately, lost the plot in more sense than one, and for some of these reasons. Hollywood shouldn’t be so afraid of complexities, nor should they do a spit and polish on reality. Seeing Venezuela — happy kids playing in the street — relatively peaceful surroundings and clean neighborhoods — is nothing close to reality. Having been to the border in Cucuta in Colombia — across the bridge from San Cristobal in Venezuela — knowing that people are starving on the other side of the border, that the ELN and other factions are controlling illicit paths between the two countries — that very few are living in luxury, and instead inflation and violence are so endemic as to now be the daily, brutal reality— to see this reality among the millions whitewashed was disconcerting. I could see where Colombia was standing in for Venezuela, and even something as small as the accents among the actors speaking Spanish (the difference among Colombian, Venezuelan, and Spanish actors was obvious for anyone who has been to the region once a part of Gran Colombia), I wondered when Hollywood would try to get it right instead of being content with just letting it be good enough for what they believe to be the lowest common denominator among audiences who wouldn’t know the difference.
Maybe many — or even most Americans— wouldn’t know the difference, but that shouldn’t mitigate the need to get something as essential as a desperate reality among millions of desperate people — right. That should be the point. Even for Hollywood if it wants to really serve more than itself as a master.
Those last two episodes were important in even the minimal reality shown — but for someone who knows better, there was also still minimal suspension of disbelief by the end, in which once again, Jack Ryan takes down the bad guys — and no real spoilers here, given the usual tropes — there is more than one — and in more than one country in the Western Hemisphere.
We need to have heroes perhaps now more than ever in this world, but with that need also comes an equal cynicism that they actually exist. As dynamic as Jon Krasinski as Jack Ryan may be, along with his fellow actors (Noomi Rapace, whose talent is epic, but who, however, seemed to be relegated once again by Hollywood to the now popular token “female badass”), it doesn’t make up for a superficial plot and setting when the reality is actually more important, complex, and dramatic.
Next time, for Season 3: do better.
K.J. Wetherholt is the Publisher/Executive Editor of MIPJ, Humanitas Media Publishing, and Humanitas. She currently also writes about war and humanity, a book about war correspondents on the Western Front during WWI, The Illumination: A Novel of the Great War, re-released Memorial Day, May 27, 2019. An upcoming monograph on the ELN in the Colombian civil war will be published November 22, 2019.