Unless someone is obsessed with a movie or director, the likelihood of them sitting through a second viewing with the commentary turned on is unlikely. But a commentary track for Armageddon starring Ben Affleck has started making the rounds again, and it’s a good example of a specific reason commentary tracks are worth putting up with.
Although commentary tracks tend to focus on directors explaining their thinking process and offering added explanations for their filmmaking decisions, there are rare moments of comedy gold that pay off. On the Armageddon commentary, Affleck spends two minutes insulting director Michael Bay’s decision to get a group of oil drillers to save the planet from impending devastation by sending them to space.
Armageddon was released in 1998, but the special commentary track wasn’t made available until 1999 when the movie was released as part of the Criterion Collection. At one point, Affleck points out the ridiculousness in the team needing eight months to “dig a hole” but only a week to become astronauts who know what they’re doing.
“One whole week? Now you know how to fly into space? ‘I need my guys!’ ‘Why do you need your guys?’ ‘They’re the best!’ Everyone’s the best,” Affleck says while laughing. “‘Why are they the best?’ ‘Well, they just are!’”
The entire scene can be seen in the video below.
i think about Ben Affleck's Armageddon commentary often pic.twitter.com/5SKGTEfyd5— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) April 29, 2017
Affleck’s commentary is one of the more memorable ones, but he’s not the first person to use the platform as a way of poking fun of the film or complain about what went wrong.
Another lesser known example is John Cleese’s commentary on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, perhaps the most famous film made by the British comedy troupe. Cleese has said before that he only likes the first half of the film and, on the commentary track that came with the 2001 DVD re-release of the 1975 film, he explains why he hates the technical aspects of filmmaking.
“This is the stuff the directors love shooting, you know,” Cleese says while an establishing shot of the mountainside plays. “Not a laugh in it. Intrinsically it's boring as hell. But, as they always say to me, John, cinema is a visual medium. To which I say to them, I think life is a visual medium, yet we've been sitting here talking to each other for three hours."
Cleese spends the majority of his time with the commentary talking about how much of a chore the film was and just how much he detested making it. As the commentary continues, Cleese goes on a rant about young, angry people and how much it affected the film. The commentary doesn’t necessarily explain what’s being satirized, which it should, but paints a portrait of the comedian’s mindset during the period of filmmaking.
Perhaps the best example of a writer using the commentary track as a way to voice his displeasure with a movie is on Spartacus. When the 1960 film was released as part of the Criterion Collection in 2001, the author of the novel that the film was adapted from, Howard Fast, didn’t hold back. Fast insulted everything from Kirk Douglas’ poor acting to scenes that didn’t need to be written but were included anyway.
Fast, like Affleck and Cleese, is clearly irritated and frustrated with the direction of the film, and uses the commentary track as a way of getting that across to viewers. During the fight scene between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, for example, Fast ranted about the fact that it even needed to exist.
“It made no sense,” Fast says. “But not too much in making this film made sense. So I wrote this silly scene because I was instructed to."
By the end of the commentary track on Spartacus, it’s apparent that Fast wasn’t pleased with the final result — even if the movie did win four Academy Awards.
The resurgence of Affleck’s commentary tracks is a good reminder that certain people in Hollywood have always used the time as a confessional. It exists as a way of trying to explain that whatever faults the movie may have, it’s not their own doing. Armageddon won’t be the last time the platform is used for this specific reason.