Ben Affleck’s 2007 feature debut Gone Baby Gone made a workmanlike addition to the Boston crime sub-genre booming at the time. It was more fun than Eastwood’s grim Mystic River, more conventional than Scorsese’s The Departed. The Town, a sophomore slumpy follow-up which he also starred in, missed but swung big, going for Good Will Hunting-esque brother-honor and Shawshank Redemption piousness. His new film, Argo, is lighter on its feet and comes out looking smarter.
In all of his films, Affleck gathers a great cast (drawing especially deep from the episodic TV bench) which he shoots in a straightforward way, highlighting faces and performances. In Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s unpretentious approach captured Casey Affleck’s weird intensity perfectly, a quality that eluded the usually-deft Michael Winterbottom in 2011’s The Killer Inside Me. Blake Lively’s treacherous, boozy turn in The Town could have easily come off as dress up, but her focused performance, sympathetically shot, was a high point in the film. A period piece about the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, Argo‘s design and costumes seem impressively-researched, and there’s some gussied-up “verite” camerawork for flavor, but the talent-rich cast is what impresses most.
Here’s Tate Donovan, letting rip in a bitchy, funny performance that would seem like an easy choice if anyone had ever thought of it before. TV it-boys Bryan Cranston and Chris Messina bitch each other out at the Pentagon. Blink and you missed last year’s TV it-boy Kyle Chandler or world class utility-actor Zeljko Ivanek. Farshad Farahat steals his one scene with no-bullshit Star Power.
For himself, Affleck reserves the thankless, though leading, role of Tony Mendez, CIA “ex-fil” specialist and designated straight man to the parade of talent mentioned above. Introduced in an early-morning pan over discarded take-out Chinese and empty beer cans, a narrative-starting phone waking him from rumpled sleep, Mendez seems ripped from the pages of a 1975 screnplay that William Goldman threw out. After reluctantly blowing some minds in a State Department war room, Mendez is dispatched to rescue six US embassy workers who escaped their compound just before it was overrun, and are hiding out with the Canadian Ambassador (there’s Victor Garber, the captain from Titanic!).
Mendez heads to LA where he watches–amused but calm–while John Goodman and Alan Arkin, Hollywood warhorses playing Hollywood warhorses, slap together a phony science fiction movie, a cover story Mendez needs to smuggle the Americans out of Iran posing as a film crew. In country, Mendez–polite but firm–wrangles his terrified charges (there’s Rory Cochran from Empire Records and Clea DuVall from The Faculty!). The “Director” of the phony film is meant to be Tate Donovan, but it’s Mendez who accepts responsibility for the team, absorbs the freakouts. Affleck, shoring up his movie from the inside, facilitates exposition, smirks at the subtler jokes.
Mendez is all game face at work, but we’re given access to his secret wound, a wife and child he’s estranged from. These scenes are managed with classy restraint, but they’re dull, big-Hollywood trimmings tacked on to help us “relate” to Mendez and they’re out-of-step with the script’s otherwise sharp focus on the next problem and its solution. They’re Affleck’s only moments of self-congratulation, in a way, because his understated performance and direction of them imply that there’s a “right way” to add flaccid back story.
This ends up basically working, though. Mendez is plenty relatable, charming even. But the enthusiasm of the rest of the cast, and the loving way their work is captured, make Mendez’s sensible modesty look kind of joyless. Affleck directs Argo with verve but, as the film’s lead, he keeps the ball on the ground and settles for field goals and well-placed punts.
2010’s Company Men came and went, which was probably as it should be, but it was interesting in that movie to watch Affleck’s scenes with Kevin Costner. Costner’s star has dimmed but, in his heyday, he was a magazine-cover leading man turned big budget director, not unlike where Affleck is now. Costner’s gigantic debut, Dances With Wolves is a well-made, sentimental western elevated by Costner’s eccentric performance. Given full rein over his own brand, Costner subverted his soft-core sex appeal, the key feature of movies like Bull Durham and Revenge, and replaced it with a nerdy, clumsy charm. He’s since proceeded to run this persona (sexy but harmless, competent but easily-stunned) into the ground in films he’s directed and produced like Waterworld and Open Range. But fifty years from now, the performance Costner will be remembered for will be in a film he directed.
The same is true of Mel Gibson’s performance in Braveheart. In that film, Gibson displayed a once-in-a-generation gift for grand-scale, physical filmmaking, but he also seized the opportunity to perform in a way that transcended his status as a bankable sex object.
Affleck’s temperament doesn’t seem as pitched, let’s say, as either Costner’s or Gibson’s. From what I can gather from TV and magazines, and considering his sturdy but dull performances in The Town and Argo, I doubt he’d succumb to Costner’s bland narcissism or to whatever it is that’s got a hold of Mel Gibson. But Affleck is giving himself lead roles in his own movies. So it might be fair to ask: where is the performance only he can get, from himself? It may be that it takes a truly crazy person, a maniac narcissist like Costner or Gibson or Woody Allen or Orson Welles, to direct and star in a gigantic American movie. Does Affleck have their kind of crazy in him?
And if he doesn’t then who does? It’s been quiet on this front but TV might be giving us a hint. Is it time, finally, for a visionary, generational American movie made by and starring a female maniac narcissist?