Is Ben Affleck one of this generation’s greatest filmmakers?

With "Argo," Affleck is poised to surpass the legacy of fellow actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood

Topics: film industry, Argo, Ben Affleck, Hollywood, Film, The Town, Clint Eastwood, Movies, Gone Baby Gone,

Is Ben Affleck one of this generation's greatest filmmakers?Ben Affleck (Credit: AP/Nathan Denette)

Film archives are littered with movies about real movies — “Shadow of the Vampire,” about the making of “Nosferatu”; “My Week With Marilyn,” about “The Prince and the Showgirl.” And there are those about the making of fake movies: Fellini’s “8½,” Truffaut’s “Day for Night.”  Ben Affleck’s “Argo” must be some kind of first: a movie about a real fake movie. Considering that the material on which “Argo” is based was declassified in 1997, it’s amazing that the story didn’t inspire a movie much sooner.

It’s historical,  as I’m sure you know by now. It details how six American hostages were whisked out of Iran after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in 1979. It’s political, offering a fair and incisive account of how both the American CIA and the Iranian rebels contributed to the crisis. And it reintroduces suspense as the primary element in a thriller.

After directing two fine films that were top-heavy with violence, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Affleck has now made a movie almost devoid of violence but long on suspense. The biggest surprise of all: “Argo” is hip. It keeps getting the audience to hold its collective breath only to let it out laughing.

The brilliance of “Argo” begins with Affleck’s uncanny talent for casting, including himself as Tony Mendez, the real-life “exfiltration” specialist who came up with an idea so ridiculous it would have been rejected by any Hollywood studio: disguise six Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy as part of a crew for a phony science fiction potboiler to smuggle them out of Iran. Affleck gives a fine, unshowy performance, interacting with more experienced actors such as John Goodman’s real-life makeup man, John Chambers, and Alan Arkin’s fictional producer, Lester Siegel, as well as Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s real-life intelligence boss, Jack O’Donnell. (Arkin gets the best lines. When Affleck asks him if he can teach someone to be a director in just one day, he shoots back, “I can teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in one day.” Cranston also snaps off a couple of good ones; the Argo scheme, he admits to his superior, “is the best bad idea we have.”)

But it’s as a director that Affleck makes an impact. “Argo” is taut but never overwrought, witty but never facetious. If you didn’t know that Ben Affleck directed the film, you might think you were watching the work of an exciting young director on the verge of greatness. Then, maybe you are. Affleck is catching the critical establishment by surprise — in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane sees “Argo” as “further proof that we were wrong about Ben Affleck” — but it shouldn’t. Or rather, we should have all been waiting for this.

Affleck has been taking cheap shots for years for doing movies such as “Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon” as if he was the only actor in those movies or the only actor who appeared in big-budget noisemakers. Here’s David Thomson in the 2002 edition of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film”: “Mr. Affleck is boring, complacent and criminally lucky to have got away with everything so far. If there was any doubt in my mind, it was settled by the mere presence – and it wasn’t anything more than mere – of Affleck in the travesty called ‘Pearl Harbor.’“

At the time Thomson wrote that, Affleck had shared an Oscar with Matt Damon for the “Good Will Hunting” screenplay, turned in a ferocious cameo as a snake-oil stockbroker in “The Boiler Room” and performed creditably in “Shakespeare in Love.” Some people, like Affleck, are born to be underrated; some, like Clint Eastwood, are born to be wildly overrated.

Here’s Thomson, from the same volume, on Clint: “Has it occurred to you that, by 1994, Clint Eastwood was among the very few Americans admired and respected at home and abroad, without qualification or irony? When the one-time mayor of Carmel insists that he is not running for anything else, we feel regret.” Well, it certainly hasn’t occurred to me since the Republican convention, but in truth it had never occurred to me at all.

Let’s compare Ben and Clint. In 2006, Affleck gave a poignant, nuanced performance as the doomed George Reeves, TV’s Superman, in “Hollywoodland.” Anthony Lane said it best: “I have rarely warmed to Affleck, except for his bastard turn in ‘Boiler Room,’ but here he delivers a lovely study of a star, both shooting and falling: tall, dark, handsome, but wise to the fate of all vanity, and, though hardly whip-smart, by no means dumb enough to be happy with his lot. For every Burt Lancaster, there have been thousands of George Reeveses, and Affleck pays them the kind of fond homage — an offer of limelight — that they otherwise never get.”

It’s likely that Affleck, who was 34 when the film was made, saw in Reeves’ sad life and career a premonition where his own career might be headed. Perhaps the role drew reserves of depth and emotion from him that simply hadn’t been called on before. Was it because the film was not a commercial hit that so many critics missed this turn in Affleck’s career? Whatever, I would submit that between “The Boiler Room” and “Hollywoodland” Affleck showed more acting chops than Eastwood in his entire career, in which he has gone from TV show to film after film giving the same performance.

The next year saw another side of Affleck that no one knew existed when he adapted (with Aaron Stockard) and directed “Gone Baby Gone” from Dennis Lehane’s detective novel, with his brother Casey as the lead. In Affleck’s hands, “Gone Baby Gone” broke through the constraints of genre thriller to genuine drama, if not tragedy, and pushed Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan into the public eye. (Ryan was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role.)

In 2010 Affleck took the crime story to yet another level with “The Town,” a richer and more honest study of the South Boston crime ghetto than Scorsese’s “The Departed,” and confirmed Jeremy Renner (who earned an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor) as a star.

Affleck was 35 when he directed “Gone Baby Gone”; he’s 40 now. Eastwood was 41 when he directed his first film, “Play Misty For Me”; he was 44 by the time he made his next two films, “High Plains Drifter” (1973) and a “hippie with a heart” abomination called “Breezy” (1973).

Affleck’s first three films are better than Eastwood’s first three, and by a wide margin. And as the younger director matures, he will be capable of, at the least, surpassing such lead-footed Eastwood clunkers as “The Eiger Sanction,” “The Rookie,” “A Perfect World,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “Changeling,” “Hereafter,” “J. Edgar” and perhaps even Eastwood’s best film by far, “Mystic River” – territory Affleck is already fast approaching.

In 2004, the first season of “Entourage,” Jeremy Piven’s agent terrible, Ari Gold, tries to bully Adrian Grenier’s Vinnie Chase to make better career decisions, “Who do you want to be? Matt Damon or Ben Affleck?” At the time, of course, the question was rhetorical – Affleck was still a punch line for Conan O’Brien and David Letterman. What a difference a few years make.

With “Argo,” it’s time to simply acknowledge that we’ve all been wrong about Affleck. He’s one of the most exciting filmmakers of the 21stcentury.


Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>