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 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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Alias

Alias – ‘Spirit’ (1×10)

Spirit works not just as a follow on from Mea Culpa but as a companion piece of sorts, continuing Alias’ mid-season exploration of its own central morality.

We saw in the previous episode the difficult soul searching experienced by SD-6 head honcho Arvin Sloane when it came to contemplating that Sydney Bristow, a woman he has spent his life deluding himself into believing a surrogate daughter figure, could have betrayed him – and the consequence of potentially having to sanction her murder. Spirit, by the very nature of how Syd gets out of what looked like at the end of Mea Culpa the end of her life as a double agent for the CIA, shifts this moral question over to Syd’s *real* father, and to some degree the mirror image of Sloane – Jack Bristow. In order to save Syd’s life, Jack has to go beyond simply being Sloane’s weapon of murder—as previous episodes have established—into sacrificing the life of an ‘innocent’ man as part of the greater good.

In reality, as Vaughn later reassures Syd once she realises what Jack has done, the sacrificial lamb of Anthony Russek—an SD-6 agent who Jack frames as a mole working for K-Directorate after faking a transmission to them on a mission we saw in Mea Culpa to disguise Syd’s *actual* transmission to the CIA—was no innocent. “He was an early member of SD-6, he knew he was working for the bad guys”. Russek was culpable in the hidden crimes of SD-6, aware of the Alliance underpinning their ruse of being part of the American intelligence network, and involved in weapons sales used against American interests across the world. “He got what he deserved” Vaughn states, showing that he may not have agreed with Jack’s slippery methods, but from a moral perspective he agrees with the choice Jack made in the heat of the moment. “What would you have done if it had been your daughter, or son, or Danny?” he asks Syd. She has no clear answer.

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Alias – ‘Doppelgänger’ (1×05)

SYDNEY BRISTOW: I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Sit in these meetings with Sloane. Look at him as though I don’t despise him. That I don’t want to leap across the table and use the skills I’ve learned at SD-6 against him.

Doppelgänger comes as something of a surprise when you look at it from the broader context of Alias’s first season. The fifth episode of a twenty-two episode season, structurally, is never going to contain too many of the bigger mythological revelations, character turning points, and narrative surprises that you might expect from a mid-season two-parter or particularly a season finale, and while Doppleganger doesn’t buck that trend, it cuts surprisingly deep to the core conceptual idea crucial to the entire show, namely: do we really *know* the people closest to us?

Before we touch on that philosophical question, we must remember that we are still watching Alias. This is not The Wire, riven with harsh social commentary, or Hannibal layered with creeping metaphysical discourse. This is a show about a young spy “jumping off buildings in three-inch heels while napalm explodes all around me”, as Sydney Bristow deftly sums up her career at the end of the series finale way way into the future. That is not to cheapen the writing or character work, which has far more substance than on the surface you might expect, but we should always be aware that Alias first and foremost is a piece of escapism. Which explains the extended, ten-minute opening sequence which kicks Doppleganger off.

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Alias – ‘A Broken Heart’ (1×04)

MICHAEL VAUGHN: In this job you see darkness; you see the worst in people. And though the jobs are different and the missions change and the enemies have a thousand names, the one crucial thing, the one real responsibility you have is to not let your rage and your resentment and your disgust darken you.

As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters. While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.

Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process. It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.

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Alias – ‘Parity’ (1×03)

ANNA ESPINOSA: I heard about your fiancé. Very sad. I thought perhaps it was a security execution sanctioned by your employer. Maybe you said something in your sleep you shouldn’t have. But then why would you be here in service for the men that killed your true love?

If Alias, in its opening two introductory episodes, flirted with the idea that the show is a post-Cold War espionage thriller attempting to understand and resolve the consequences of the 20th century’s longest-running and defining ideological conflict, then Parity absolutely goes for broke and seals the deal with a loving kiss. 

The third episode, the first not penned directly by series creator J.J. Abrams, cements and solidifies existing, introductory concepts and brings in key new ones which will help frame Alias as a show with a sense of unique, genre identity. In many respects, Alex Kurtzman-Counter (as he was named originally, before losing the Counter) and Roberto Orci’s script is one of the most crucial in Alias’ first season. It is the first episode which directly picks up from the cliffhanger established in the previous episode. It introduces one of the most interesting (and underused) characters the show ever gave us. And, most importantly, it truly kickstarts the mythology Alias would embrace, grapple with, struggle with, and never truly satisfy its audience with over the next five years. Parity is a key, early touchstone for Abrams’ series.

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Alias – ‘Recruited’

Though written after Alias aired, ABC launched a 12-book series of tie-in novels set before the pilot episode, ‘Truth Be Told’, which explore Sydney Bristow’s life before the series. I’ll be looking at them one by one as we move through exploring the series itself…

There are several reasons why developing a tie-in book series for Alias aimed at the young adult market makes a lot of sense. For a start, with Sydney Bristow, you have a defined heroine for, specifically, a female market who will find the struggles of a nineteen year old girl on the one hand being a dork around boys, and on the other obsessing whether she is capable enough to become a CIA super-spy, fairly relatable – which is precisely what author Lynn Mason puts her through in Recruited. Secondly, there is a very clear narrative black spot in the Alias backstory open for further exploration.

When we first meet Syd, in the Alias pilot episode ‘Truth Be Told’, she is a fully-fledged super-spy. She is still young, around her early-mid twenties, but we get the impression of a woman who has been working for SD-6 for quite some time. She’s travelled the world, fought bad guys. She has friends, a fiancee and is thinking of marriage. She has grown into a persona where she can become someone else at the drop of a hat. We will see the origin story of that on screen with the Rachel Gibson character in Season 5 much much later on, but Alias’ tale begins with Syd already there. The conflict that drives her in the series, which the pilot establishes, is in learning SD-6 is, in reality, a sinister crime syndicate pretending to *be* the CIA. The show, therefore, skips Syd’s origin story.

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