“Argo,” Ben Affleck’s third directorial effort, has won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Picture from the Producers Guild, Best Cast from the Screen Actors Guild, and the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture. It’s nominated for seven BAFTAs and seven Oscars. It’s even critical institution Roger Ebert’s favorite movie of the year. Last but certainly not least, the film is a financial success. It’s earned nearly $200 million worldwide against a production budget of $45 million.
Thought experiment: Imagine someone from the far-flung future of 2013 had informed you in the heady days of 2004 that a film starring and directed by Ben Affleck would be the subject of the above paragraph. You probably would have dropped your flip phone onto your keyboard and posted an errant message on your Myspace page. It would seem inconceivable that one half of Bennifer could not only salvage but burnish his artistic reputation in a lifetime, much less a handful of years. This seems as good a time as any to look back at how Ben Affleck wound up as the toast of Hollywood. To keep things appropriately filmic, let’s use the three-act structure.
Affleck has been acting since childhood, popping up in television series like “The Voyage of the Mimi” and “Against the Grain,” and securing small parts in a number of films, including “Dazed & Confused” and “Mallrats.” Of course, 1997 was the year it all really started to happen for the young actor. He starred in “Chasing Amy,” probably Kevin Smith’s best-regarded film, and then helped anchor the neutron bomb that was “Good Will Hunting.” He and childhood friend Matt Damon became Hollywood royalty overnight and Affleck parlayed his new status into roles in the Oscar winner “Shakespeare in Love” and global blockbuster “Armageddon.” He and Damon even got the band back together for Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” surely eschewing larger paychecks to stick by a friend. The future seemed limitless.
Okay, so “Reindeer Games” and “Bounce” slid out of the public consciousness like rainwater on a windshield. And “Pearl Harbor” is the classic twenty-first century Hollywood “This Made a Ton of Money, But Try to Find Someone Who Likes It” film. There’s always Jack Ryan! Sadly, “The Sum of All Fears” killed the Clancy franchise for a decade and counting.
Here is Ben Affleck’s twenty months from early 2003 to late 2004: “Daredevil,” “Gigli,” “Paycheck,” “Jersey Girl,” “Surviving Christmas.” Ouch. “Gigli” always and ever merits special mention as the “Ishtar” of the Aughts (sidenote: “Ishtar” is actually pretty darn good and you should check it out). Can we also address the fact that the man made a film called “PAYCHECK”!? One has to wonder if “Goodbye, Artistic Integrity” was taken. Also: Bennifer.
The first thing Affleck did to undo the damage of his unfortunate run was to go away for a while. He married Jennifer Garner (an unimpeachable decision), became a father, and slowly started to return to the big screen in supporting roles. His second big move was the one that took him behind the cameras. His adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston-based thriller Gone Baby Gone hit theaters in 2007 and immediately won excellent notices from critics and audiences. Many observers wondered if the film would turn out to be a fluke. Such speculation was laid to rest with the release of “The Town” in 2010. Affleck crafted Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves into a taut and compelling heist film. It helped launch Jeremy Renner to stardom and again found favor with critics and paying audiences. The film even premiered at the setting of its climactic heist, Fenway Park.
We now find ourselves back at “Argo,” the latest work in a directorial filmography that has some calling Affleck the Director a throwback to the 1970s, generally considered Hollywood’s last golden age for movies aimed at adults. I would agree that he’s a throwback, but I would go back even farther. Affleck reminds me most of the kind of directors who populated Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system: craftsmen who churned out one genre picture after another – noirs, westerns, war movies – and managed to elevate their material through quiet competence and faith in a good tale well told. The fact that a film made with the kind of competence and respect for its audience that Hollywood used to manage all the time now seems like an exceptional, Oscar-worthy miracle that could be the subject of another (much longer) essay.
Whether he leaves the Academy Awards with a golden idol this February or not, Ben Affleck has decisively won the larger battle for his career. His next directorial effort will find him retuning to Boston to adapt Dennis Lehane’s Prohibition-era gangster tale Live By Night. His next appearance on screen will be in a Terrence Malick film. He doesn’t need Oscar, but one has to think it would be a nice bit of symmetry if he could cap this second flowering of his prospects on the same stage he occupied fifteen years ago.