For a film about a historical event which looks ahead to a future where we move past partisan politics into a world of discovery, First Man has turned out to be surprisingly political and controversial.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Very little that emerges, culturally, from the American sphere right now isn’t loaded with some level of subtext, be it a coded sideswipe at the alt-right or pointed rejection of the liberal left. Everything has to be ‘relevant’. You almost want First Man to run and hide from such analysis.
If you listen to my podcast The X-Cast regularly, you’ll have heard the name Carl Sweeney.
Having cut his podcasting teeth on my X-Files show, Carl this year has broken out to develop The Movie Palace, a podcast which looks every week at a brand new film from Classic Hollywood. This week, it was my turn to guest for the first time, discussing my choice – Charles Laughton’s one and only film as director, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter.
This was a great discussion, and the film was incredibly fun to watch again with one eye on the research. If you’re a classic film buff, you’ll enjoy this, and you’ll definitely dig Carl’s top drawer show. I’ll be back on it again in December all going to plan talking about a film we tease at the end of this…
The Purge has made the translation to the small screen and on a weekly basis, I’ll be reviewing the show in capsule form for Set The Tape. Here’s a preview of my review of the fourth episode, Release the Beast.
One aspect of the Purge which none of the incarnations of The Purge have truly explored are the consequences, and this is something ‘Release the Beast’ makes a point of getting into, utilising the television format to stretch out the concept as a way of interrogating bigger sociological ideas… to an extent.
Yes, the law may allow you to ‘purge’, as part of the New Founding Fathers of America’s fascist rationale to retain the visage of a democratic iron grip of the United States, but The Purgehere investigates the societal consequences. For steely office boss Jane (Amanda Warren), the contract killing of her boss on Purge Night was always a distant proposition – a death that would happen by her order but not her hand, and therefore she felt a diminished level of responsibility, and some level of justification given his previous, creepy advances.
Seeing psychotic co-worker Alison murder a colleague in cold blood because she believed he would be promoted over her snaps Jane into the reality of what she’s done, and places her character on a redemptive arc which could underpin The Purge as a series itself and it’s central question – what is America?
Ahoy there, dear readers! Today, I have something of a special announcement.
You may or may not be aware that I dabble in the art of podcasting and today, on International Podcast Day no less, I thought I would reveal my big podcast plan for 2019. In short, I’m starting a network.
It’s called WE MADE THIS and you can find out more by checking out this link: https://wemadethispodnetwork.wordpress.com
That’s a very basic website template before 2019 when hopefully something a bit more impressive will go online, as indeed will the main domain name, but I implore you to bookmark this site ready for much more content in the next few months.
You may ask yourself, as action revenge thriller Peppermint is released in the UK with a limited release, why Jennifer Garner never became the Next Big Thing.
Pierre Morel’s thriller—from a director who has, as of yet, failed to capture the same iconic formula he developed with Liam Neeson in Taken—sees Garner play Riley North, a mother on a quest for revenge against the cartel who murdered her family. This certainly is not Alias: The Movie (we already got that after all with Mission Impossible 3) but it does see a return for Garner to the kind of picture she assidiously seemed to avoid since her breakout role in JJ Abrams’ underrated ‘spy-fi’ series Alias at the turn of the Noughties. With the odd exception, Garner has never capitalised on the renown of her role as super spy Sydney Bristow.
While appearing in Alias, Garner was spotted by none other than Steven Spielberg, who offered her the role of a call-girl in his jaunty caper Catch Me If You Can in 2002, and he too made an observation which failed to ultimately pay off:
“The first time I saw Jennifer, I immediately said she would be the next superstar. I knew she was locked into the series, but I wondered if she would do this small role. She came in and worked for just one day and was simply remarkable. “
Spielberg is not exactly someone without some level of nouse when it comes to making stars out of workday or jobbing actors, and while often he sticks with the same mega stars he knows and trusts (Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise etc…) he equally will take a gamble on up and comers such as Tye Sheridan most recently in Ready Player One. He saw in Garner what it seems Abrams—Spielberg’s chief ingenue and cover artist—did after she appeared for a couple of episodes of his first show runner experience, Felicity: star potential. Alias didn’t exactly become a worldwide hit but by the end of the show, Garner was earning over 100k more per episode than when she began and the series gave her enough of a profile to launch a major movie career.
A Different Star is Born
The biggest irony of Alias is that this didn’t happen to Garner, or her erstwhile co-star Michael Vartan, but rather one of the original ensemble who the show dumped after just two seasons: Bradley Cooper. Seeing him headlining Clint Eastwood movies or being feted as the next big actor-director for the upcoming A Star Is Born remake remains the strangest thing for any Alias fan, to whom he will always be the lovelorn, shaggy-dog journalist Will Tippin. Leaving Aliasmay have been one of the best things that ever happened to Cooper and while he certainly didn’t ‘steal’ Garner’s career by any means, you wonder if she should not have tasted the same Hollywood A-list power he did.
Why this did not happen could be for several reasons. Toward the end of Alias, Garner married an A-list Hollywood star in Ben Affleck, after having appeared briefly in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor in which he of course starred, and swiftly fell pregnant. Instead of Alias writing her out, her pregnancy was incorporated into that of her character Sydney for what became the show’s truncated final season, and many fans were subsequently quick to claim ‘Ben Affleck Killed Alias’, which is probably a little unfair. Alias was already winding down by its fifth year, having reached the sacrosanct 100 episodes needed for network syndication, and Garner no doubt had one eye on a transition to film from her TV roots.
That transition came with Affleck’s help in 2003’s Daredevil, the first adaptation of the blind Marvel Comics vigilante, in which she played Matt Murdock’s on-off love interest/nemesis Elektra Natchios. As casting went, despite not being ethnically accurate, it made sense and did exactly what you might expect for Garner’s career: tap into the action theatrics she had honed on Alias over five seasons. Daredevil was released, of course, during Alias’ run, when Garner was hot property, and while in it’s pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe form it received decidedly mixed reviews, the box office was powerful enough to guarantee if not Daredevila sequel, then Garner her own spin-off vehicle in 2005’s Elektra. That, sadly, not only garnered (excuse the pun) poor reviews, but equally poor box office which put paid to Garner’s role as a bonafide, successful Marvel super heroine.
A Youthful Approach
Arguably the role she became the most famous for, aside from Alias, and certainly in cinematic terms, was 2004’s romantic comedy 13 Going on 30– her first major leading screen role. She displays a winning, likeable, homely level of all-American charm in what is, essentially, a female version of Big, to the degree she was described in reviews as:
“America’s next Sweetheart; she has the same magic mix of allure and accessibility that the job calls for.”
It is entirely possible, after the success of 13 Going on 30 and the failure of Elektra, Garner decided that the innate warmth inherent in her best performances (even in the resolute and tough role of Sydney) was the better path to follow in terms of her career prospects.
Following a year off upon marrying Affleck and having their first child, she edged closer to the dark side by appearing in Peter Berg’s 2007 action thriller The Kingdom, as a fairly sullen FBI investigator opposite Jamie Foxx, but she resonates much more as a supporting player in Jason Reitman’s Juno, which made a name for Ellen Page as the caustic eponymous teenager, with Garner the nice but stiff housewife alongside Jason Bateman who desperately wants to be a mother. Much like appearing in a film for Berg, who she worked with and knew from a guest role in Alias, the same was true of Ricky Gervais, who sought her out for his conceptual comedy The Invention of Lying in 2009, he having sought her out because she is “always happy and always pleasant to everyone” and he wanted her to play against type. Nonetheless, the film was a commercial and critical failure.
At this stage, why didn’t Garner then choose to try and go back her roots? To the formula that had made her famous to begin with? Action and adventure.
It’s hard to say. She seemed intent on appearing in dramas or romantic comedies, to a lesser or greater extent. This wasn’t always a bad decision. A major role in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club alongside an Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey certainly bought her significant cred, being one of the most powerful films of that year, while in 2015 she appeared in Al Pacino’s Danny Collinswhich while only being a modest success was critically applauded. Beyond that, if you take in her filmography over the last decade, you wade largely amidst a sea of forgettable films which barely made a dent in the box office or amongst cinephiles – Draft Day, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Valentine’s Day, Nine Lives, Miracles From Heaven, and even the Russell Brand remake of Arthur!
What happened to the Jennifer Garner who kicked arse and took names for five years in Alias? Where did she go? Once she became a mother in real life, Garner seemed intent on similar roles in many of the pictures she has made – even up to this year’s excellent romantic comedy Love, Simon. If anyone can almost be accused of stealing Garner’s career, it could well be Keri Russell. The star of Felicity, Abrams didn’t pick her to then play Sydney in Alias, but he did briefly throw her into Mission Impossible III, before she landed her signature role in critically-lauded 80’s set spy series The Americans, in which she essentially plays the same role as Lena Olin as Sydney’s mother in Alias did in the show’s backstory, in a series which very much feels like an evolved, peak TV era version of Alias itself. Russell is now about to appear once again for Abrams in Star Wars IX. Her star is on the ascendant, at only four years younger, whereas Garner seems to have gotten lost over the years.
Sadly, reviews for Peppermint haven’t been pretty so far, but if this marks a return for Garner to the kind of action roles fans may wish she could have counterbalanced with evolving into a modern American mother figure in mid-range cinema, she may yet be due a renaissance. Who knows? Given how TV is want to revive itself, we may even see an older Sydney Bristow again one day. Either way, Jennifer Garner’s curious career feels one of missed potential and you hope, as she heads for middle age, that might yet still change.
The Purge has made the translation to the small screen and on a weekly basis, I’ll be reviewing the show in capsule form for Set The Tape. Here’s a preview of my review of the second episode, The Urge to Purge.
For an episode all about ‘The Urge to Purge’, there doesn’t feel all that much of it going on in the third outing of The Purge TV adaptation. James DeMonaco’s translation continues to suffer from a powerful sense of the TV equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder, lurching like a pinball from one idea to another without any sense of grounding. It’s hard to understand why it’s bizarrely so engaging as a result as opposed to irritating, even if it’s becoming increasingly clear there is almost no substance beneath the ghoulish style. The Purge on TV is even more a conduit for broad sociopolitical ideas at the expense of memorable characterisation than the films.
How do you solve a problem like Jack Ryan? This appears to be a question Hollywood has been asking itself for over two decades. Tom Clancy’s most famous creation—the lowly, bookish CIA analyst who over the course of around a dozen modern espionage novels becomes President of the United States—has assiduously avoided successful attempts at long-term adaptation. Amazon’s new take on the character, starring John Krasinski, is the fifth attempt in a long line of varying tries to make Jack Ryan a cinematic icon.
The most well-known incarnation still remains, arguably, the two pictures Harrison Ford portrayed him in – 1992’s Patriot Games and 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, both from Australian director Philip Noyce – and it is perhaps one of the most unfortunate roads not taken that Ford didn’t continue in the role and build to Ryan’s Presidential years. While Clancy was still writing books featuring the character, Ryan then went away for a while, cinematically. Ford wasn’t, of course, the first incarnation of the character.
Alec Baldwin portrayed him in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, which might still be the most famous Clancy adaptation by virtue of Sean Connery’s star turn as a Russian submarine commander in the last years of the Cold War. Baldwin, however, was overshadowed by Connery, as was Ryan by Connery’s character. Ford, playing a slightly older and more established Jack, fitted the part like a glove but it took Ben Affleck, in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, to have another run at the part. Despite capturing Ryan’s youthful shabby chic well, in a post-9/11 story almost presaging our current geopolitical tensions with Russia egged on by the far right, a franchise never took.
From this point on, every adaptation attempted to reboot Ryan as a youthful protagonist with an origin story. The Sum of All Fears attempts to recreate Ryan’s mentor/student relationship between Affleck’s Ryan and Morgan Freeman’s William Cabot, which Ford and James Earl Jones captured nicely in the Ford films (albeit Jones playing the character of James Greer, who we’ll return to), while it depicted Jack’s early relationship with his wife to be, Dr Cathy Mueller (in The Hunt for Red October and the Ford films, they have long been married and have children). Affleck’s Ryan, much like Ford’s, is not a field man; he repeatedly states he’s an analyst and is way out of his depth when thrown into situations that require an action man approach. This perhaps explains why the next attempt to reboot Jack Ryan sputtered out of the traps.
2014’sJack Ryan: Shadow Recruit arguably sows the biggest seeds for the eventual Jack Ryan TV series we are here to talk about, as Kenneth Branagh’s film (yes, Branagh, you read that right – he also plays the Russian villain) works hard to reconceptualise Ryan as a modern action hero. Chris Pine essays the character off the back of his appearance in another reboot, as James T. Kirk in the Star Trek franchise, and brings a different sense of the character as a young man than Affleck; here he is a former Marine who gains a similar mentor figure in Kevin Costner’s Thomas Harper, while Keira Knightley is yet again Cathy in the early stages of their relationship.
In theory, Shadow Recruit should have done what none of the previous versions achieved for Jack Ryan – make him an American, cinematic action hero. The only problem was, aside from the fact Shadow Recruit was a lacklustre film, that by making Ryan a veritable Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise’s super spy from the Mission Impossible franchise), you lose the core essence of what Clancy did with Ryan. His books were never pulpy, Ian Fleming masculine wish fulfilment or gadget-sporting escapism, they were heavily geopolitical conspiracy thrillers which frequently tapped into the technical side of CIA espionage. Ryan was never a slick secret agent. He was, as Affleck would state, an analyst. The Ford films worked because his portrayal was of a man who showed capability in the hero stakes when necessary, but first and foremost he was the guy in the briefing room, not the villain’s lair.
Amazon’s Jack Ryan works hard to try and learn these lessons, particularly when it comes to the origin story of the character. Krasinski’s Jack is at the beginning of his career; less shabby than Affleck’s nerdier take but he’s not traditionally handsome and chiselled either – Krasinski ports over the slightly wearisome office everyman from The Office on which he made his name, a characteristic which fits a version of Ryan who is always the guy amidst a sea of intelligence bureaucrats coming up with the theory about how to stop the bad guys, but always underpins his actions with an honest nobility and an aversion to ‘field ops’. Showrunners Carlton Cuse & Graham Roland do at least find a way to bake this into Ryan’s backstory, and give him reasons why he prefers sitting behind a desk.
First and foremost, of course, Jack Ryan is an action series. How could it not be? It would never have competed if Jack was solely the bookish man in the office and the eight-part series, at plenty of opportunities, finds a way for Jack to confront his personal demons and operate in the field – be it hunting terrorists in Syria, or metropolitan Paris, or the refugee camps of Turkey. Krasinski convinces as an intelligence officer with brains and brawn when necessary, while the show refuses to simply fashion Jack into a larger than life character. It seeks to ground him wherever possible and it works – particularly in contrast to Wendell Pierce’s version of James Greer, who grows steadily from irascible to badass as their partner dynamic edges from a cliche, new age Riggs & Murtaugh into something deeper. Krasinski is easily the best fit for Jack Ryan outside of Harrison Ford, and equally his relationship with this version of Cathy (played by Abbie Cornish, also well cast), convinces. Jack works, therefore, so does the show.
That being said, Jack Ryan is hampered by a feeling that it rocked up ten years too late. You’ve seen this entire storyline before, or some variation of it, in both 24 and Homeland. Jack Ryan’s first series pitches the character and the CIA against Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suleiman), a nascent future Osama bin Laden—only hailing from the current trouble spot, Syria—and inevitably he is sort of Daesh, sort of a man with his own agenda to bring on another 9/11 or critically attack Western civilisation. Jack Ryan does work hard to flesh the villain out as much as the hero, showing how—much like bin Laden—a Western education and flirtation with globalisation ended up transforming him into the extremist even his family are trying to escape from. It just, oddly, feels nothing new.
This is particularly ironic given how hard Jack Ryan is constantly working to be ‘relevant’ in our current climate of extremist terrorism tearing apart the Middle East, hints of Russian connections in the background (there are heavy suggestions that Russians will be the bad guys next season – though reports claim Jack is headed to South America, so…), refugee camps and hard borders etc… everything we’re seeing on the news every day. Yet the more Jack Ryan attempts to move away from Clancy’s Cold War espionage tales and his post-Cold War battles against less relevant threats to democracy like the IRA (in Patriot Games) or Colombian drug cartels (in Clear and Present Danger), the less the narrative grips you. More than once part of me wished they’d gone ‘period’ and made an 80’s set Jack Ryan series, allowing them to tap into more of Clancy’s original material. Not everything has to be politically timely.
On the flip side, perhaps the reason Clancy’s novels were so successful is precisely *because* Jack Ryan existed inside a timely political landscape. Perhaps we are simply saturated by drama which seems as determined to make a sociopolitical point as telling a ripping yarn. Let the jury be out on that one. It will depend on your point of view, but at the very least, Jack Ryan manages to establish a grounding on which it can almost certainly grow. While the narrative fails to innovate, and even with just eight episodes there are points where the storytelling drags, we have potentially the strongest ensemble in these roles since the early 1990’s. With time, the right story, and retaining all the principles involved, Jack Ryan could become a far stronger, far more interesting show.
The writers just need to let Jack be Jack. He doesn’t need to be the man of action. That’s what John Clark is for. Although that, as they say, is a whole other story…