My advice to Ben Affleck? Don't listen to the fans - they've been wrong before

Most of the "fans" who cried heresy when Ben Affleck was announced as the new Batman are fans of nothing but their own opinions. This isn't the first time they've been wrong.

Being Ben Affleck must be like riding a rollercoaster in a whirlwind. He has known ecstatic highs (winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon) and nausea-inducing lows, notably, when he became a walking punchline after making Gigli with his then-partner Jennifer Lopez—with whom, let us not forget, he also became the first recipient of the now-customary hybrid tabloid brand name. (Yes, before Brangelina there was Bennifer.) He takes all that with extremely good grace, which is why it’s no surprise to see how he has handled the most recent onslaught of opprobrium. This has been directed at him over the announcement that he will play Batman in Zach Snyder’s forthcoming Superman sequel Man of Steel 2.

I know, I know—this was supposed to be the moment when the world gave Affleck a break. How can any year which began with him winning a Best Picture Oscar (for the rather lacklustre Argo, which he directed and starred in) end up with Affleck back in the bad books? Well, it’s only the case if you listen to the most toxic, insidious and ramshackle fraternity in the entire entertainment universe. Not the studio executives. (And no, not the critics, before any of you wiseacres try that one.) I’m talking about They Who Must Never Be Heeded. In other words: the fans.

When the Batman news broke, the “fans”—I’m putting it in quote marks because they are patently fans of nothing but their own opinions—wasted no time complaining. This, to their minds, was the worst news of all time, or at least since they were last distracted from World of Warcraft for five minutes by the supposedly cataclysmic casting decision before this one. 90,000 people with nothing better to do signed their names to a petition calling for Affleck’s casting to be overturned. He dealt with it neatly on a US talk show this week: “I’m a big boy. [The studio] said just don’t use the internet for a couple of days … I’m very tough. I saw the announcement, I look down on the first comment … the first one just goes, ‘Nooooooooo!’”

As Affleck must know, this is the sort of palaver with which any change in the fanboy movie world is always greeted. In the pre-Twitter era, some 50,000 Batman fans were incensed enough to crack open the green ink and dash off letters to Warner Bros when it was announced in 1988 that Michael Keaton had been cast as Batman in Tim Burton’s first superhero film. Now, of course, any sane viewer can see that Keaton’s subtle, even sexy, portrayal of Batman as a tentative loner represented an oasis of contemplation in the midst of that chaotic movie; it also laid the groundwork for Christian Bale’s recent interpretation, which the braying hordes probably consider definitive. It isn’t. Film is cyclical. For all we know, moviegoers of the future will regard Bale’s Batman much as we now regard Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Talking of Bond, Daniel Craig’s casting provided another recent example of wrong-headed pre-emptive outrage. His arrival heralded a brave shift of tone for the Bond series, so it seems laughable now that his appointment was so derided, though in that instant the media were as blameworthy as the fans. “The press complained because he was blond, and said he looked like Vladimir Putin,” said Martin Campbell, who directed Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale. “I asked Daniel, ‘Do you listen to all this crap?’ He said, ‘Yeah. What I do is I make sure I’ve seen it all and that everyone on set knows what’s been in the press, then there’s nothing to hide.’ I thought that was a very perceptive way of dealing with it.”

In retail, the customer is always right. But we should remember that these hypothetical customers are only usually involved at the consumption end of the deal: they’re not patrolling the factory floor saying “Don’t use a screw of that diameter—are you goddamn nuts?” or “Only a freakin’ moron would make a chair like that!” If they are “right,” it is only ever after the fact. And so with the fans. Let them moan and bitch and whinge once Man of Steel 2 is released in 2015. Let them squeal to their shrivelled, unimaginative hearts’ content. Until then: put a sock in it.

Ben Affleck on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he assured viewers, "I'm very tough." Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump