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Before Amazon’s Jack Ryan, Alec Baldwin played the definitive version of the character in Hunt for Red October

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Hulu has a series of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan movies, which are a perfect primer for the new Amazon Prime show starring John Krasinski

Image: Paramount Pictures

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

The Hunt for Red October, the 1990 movie adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 debut novel. Alec Baldwin stars as Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst whose extensive knowledge of military hardware and enemy personnel helps him discern that a rogue Soviet submarine captain (played by Sean Connery) is in the middle of a daring scheme to defect to the United States, bringing along his country’s dangerous new naval technology. As Ryan tries to persuade the government to trust his interpretation of the situation, the USSR scrambles its own people to get their sub back. It quickly becomes an elaborate undersea chess match where nobody really knows for sure which side anyone’s on. Tautly directed by John McTiernan, The Hunt for Red October is an action movie classic with a star-studded cast that also includes James Earl Jones, Sam Neill, Scott Glenn, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgård, and Tim Curry.

Why watch now?

Because Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan debuts on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, August 31st.

Starring John Krasinski (yes, Jim Halpert from the American version of The Office, and the writer-director of A Quiet Place), Amazon’s new prestige drama relocates Clancy’s most famous hero to the present day, making him a veteran who saw action in Afghanistan before coming home to work for the CIA. When Jack Ryan begins, the title character is still early in his career as an analyst, interpreting trends and anomalies as part of a mission to track down emerging terrorist cells to prevent another 9/11. When a new boss arrives (played by The Wire’s always-excellent Wendell Pierce), Ryan finds an unexpected ally who encourages him to follow his data wherever it leads… even if that means strapping on a gun and charging into international hot spots.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is an action-packed show that takes a nuanced, big-picture view of geopolitical conflicts, and it spends a good portion of each of its 10 first-season episodes exploring the root causes of terrorism, showing how violence and war affect both bystanders and decision-makers. As is always the case with any Jack Ryan story, the most fascinating figure here is the man himself: a brilliant but down-to-earth action hero whose proposals and choices are nearly always presented as the result of irrefutable logic and keen intuition.

In that sense, the closest analog to Krasinski’s small-screen Ryan is the first actor to play him. While Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine have each offered their own, more prototypically macho takes on Jack Ryan, Alec Baldwin really grasps the essence of the character in The Hunt for Red October. His Ryan is a relatable everyman — afraid of flying, sweet to his wife and daughter, concerned about the fate of the world — who just happens to be the smartest person in the room pretty much everywhere he goes, even when he’s sitting with the military’s top brass.

Image: Paramount Pictures

Who it’s for

Military buffs and anyone interested in how Hollywood handled the end of the Cold War.

Clancy’s original novel was published during the heart of the Reagan era when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were as high as they’d been since the Cuban missile crisis. By the time the film went into production, Reagan had handed over the reins of power to George Bush, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the American blockbuster movie industry was starting to look for some new stock villains. The Hunt for Red October is a transitional picture in a lot of ways, keeping the hardline Soviets as the bad guys, while also suggesting that many of the men and women who lived behind the iron curtain were decent people who could soon become our best allies.

But while that theme of future peace is implicit in the material, it in no way detracts from the nail-biting life-or-death situations depicted in The Hunt for Red October. The late Clancy’s great gift — translated well here by the filmmakers — was his ability to turn true-to-life technical details about sonar systems and magnetic propulsion into gripping plot points. The big reason Jack Ryan is more brainy than brawny is that Clancy’s crises demand heroes who know things and can calmly think their way out of any potential trap. The Hunt for Red October and the Ryan stories that follow are flattering to the kinds of amateur historian readers and viewers who’ve turned themselves into experts on high-tech weaponry and classic battle strategy.

Where to see it

Hulu. The service also currently has Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, the next two movies in the Jack Ryan series, which both star Harrison Ford. Unlike Baldwin (who left the franchise because of scheduling conflicts and studio politics), Ford plays Ryan as more somber and world-weary. He doesn’t want to be right all the time. He just is.