Movies, Television

The Curious Case of Jennifer Garner

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. “

Steven Spielberg

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.

Alias (2001)

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 unfairAlias 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.”

Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post

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.

The Invention of Lying (2009)

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 DayThe Odd Life of Timothy GreenValentine’s DayNine LivesMiracles 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.

Alias

Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 2’ (1×13)

The first part of The Box established that nothing would ever be the same for Alias once this story was over. The second part cements this one hundred percent in stone.

In discussing part one of The Box, one of the major aspects that becomes clear watching this two-part story is how heavily indebted everything about it is to the classic Hollywood high-concept, and particularly the seminal John McTiernan action thriller from 1988, Die Hard. Indeed, the van which delivers Quentin Tarantino’s McKenas Cole and his lethal band of non-denominational terrorists has the marking ‘McTiernan Air Conditioning’, a direct nod to Die Hard’s helmsman. Later, investigative journalist Will gets key information about his ongoing probe into SD-6 in an envelope on a ship named the ‘Alba Varden’, sharing the name of the same ship key to Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon 2 from 1989. The Box is keenly aware of the touchstones it is borrowing from and utilising on a modest TV budget, but it suggests the clear scope of Alias’ ambition as a series.

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Alias

Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.

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Tony Talks

Tony Talks #4 – Podcasts, Books and Nuptials

Goooooooood mooooorning Vietnaaaaaaam!

It’s been a while since I last did a little update on All Things Tony, probably because it’s been quite the month. If you weren’t aware, I get married a week today so, naturally, it’s a miracle I’ve been able to write or podcast on anything over the last couple of months, but I’ve somehow managed it!

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Essays, Movie Reviews - 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

If Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation confirms anything, it’s that the Tom Cruise-fronted franchise has spent almost two decades trying to work its way back to Brian De Palma and back to the roots of where the series began.

In some of my previous pieces on the earlier films in the Mission Impossible franchise, one fact that remains true is how the series consistently reinvents itself every few years in order to stay vibrant and relevant, but oddly enough Rogue Nation on reflection is not as bold a reinvention after 2011’s Ghost Protocol as you might remember. There is greater filmmaking skill involved, with Christopher McQuarrie imbuing more heft into his set pieces than Brad Bird managed in the previous film, while McQuarrie’s script (revised after efforts by Will Staples and before that Drew Pearce, with whom he shares a story credit) certainly has more depth to the storytelling. Beyond that, there is a consistency framing itself between this and Ghost Protocol, one which may well carry through into the next film, Fallout.

Rogue Nation is consistent in how it stylistically reaches back to the first film in the franchise while further mythologising Cruise and his character Ethan Hunt.

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Essays, Movie Reviews - 2011

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

If you ran a poll asking the average film goer, and indeed the average film critic, which of the Mission Impossible films they considered to be the strongest outing in the franchise, you would have a significant amount point to Ghost Protocol. On the face of it, you can see why. Once you scratch deeper, those reasons become more opaque.

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Alias

Alias – ‘The Confession’ (1×11)

The halfway point of the first season of Alias also feels, appropriately, like the point of no return.

The Confession is an episode which essentially concludes the beginning of JJ Abrams’ series. It serves as a marker between two distinct periods, in a different way to how Season 2’s Phase One will mark the show, but in an important manner nonetheless. The Confession marks Alias as being defined as ‘pre’ Sydney knowing the truth about her mother, and ‘post’ Sydney knowing the truth about her mother, because that revelation completely and utterly changes Alias forever. It is the key to Syd’s entire life – her past, her present and her future, and for all of the revelations and twists Alias will deploy over the five years of its existence, Sydney learning her beloved, venerated mother Laura who died when she was a little girl was in fact a KGB double agent, is the most powerful. 

It’s the revelation we should have seen coming all along.

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