At the Crushable office, we’re embroiled in a debate: Is Ben Affleck finally receiving critical acclaim for his movies? And is Argo the film to finally establish him as a masterful director?
A decade ago, he was a joke, what with being engaged to Jennifer Lopez – coining one of the first and cheesiest celebrity nickname portmanteaus — and starring in awful movies like Gigli and Pearl Harbor. And while we don’t believe in holding grudges, it’s difficult to look at him without remembering his wackier missteps as an actor before he reinvented himself as primarily a director who also happens to act in his projects.
That’s where Argo comes in. There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around this true story of a CIA “exfiltration” agent who cooks up a crazy scheme to sneak six Americans out of Tehran in the middle of the Iran Hostage Crisis, by pretending that they’re the Canadian film crew on a sci-fi movie scouting locations. I really liked Argo! As promised, it was a great mix of thrilling and funny, buoyed by the fact that most of the details are true. I wasn’t as frustrated as NPR was to learn that a key chase scene was made up, because the sequence did feel very Hollywood.
In fact, my response sums up my experience with the movie: You got what you paid for. My friend I saw it with did an even better job of summing it up: It’s a fantastic movie, but not necessarily a “great film.” The attention to detail and how they recreate the late-’70s/early-’80s feel is superb. What’s more, you engage with each group of characters, from the government guys (Bryan Cranston at the CIA, Kyle Chandler at the White House) to “The Six” cooped up in the Canadian ambassador’s house, to Alan Arkin and John Goodman poking fun at Hollywood as a has-been producer and makeup artist, respectively. It’s firing on all cylinders and does have you leaning forward in your seat with excitement even though technically we all know how the story ends.
NPR ends its review with a backhanded compliment to Affleck, saying that the film will likely clean up at the awards shows and cement him as an A-list director: “Studios can do business with a filmmaker who comes on so serious but has a core of Hollywood shamelessness.” While I might not go that far, it did highlight an issue for me: Why did Ben Affleck need to star in his movie?
As the end credits compared shots of the actors to their real-life counterparts — a great touch — I saw the photo of Mendez shaking hands with Jimmy Carter, and it finally hit me. Why hadn’t they cast a Latino actor? The first guy who comes to mind is Michael Peña, who became famous after starring in Crash and who’s been part of two big recent/upcoming releases, End of Watch and Gangster Squad. He’s also enough of a name that it could easily have been his face on the posters instead of Affleck’s.
Deadspin hits the nail on the head:
Affleck isn’t a bad actor, necessarily, just an inscrutable one; behind the camera, he makes everything feel real and raw, but in front of it, his performances always have an undeniable dash of posing to them. It feels like he plays Ben Affleck, Movie Star rather than whatever character he’s assigned himself. Mendez is a likable character, but Affleck doesn’t give him much life other than “patriotic warrior.” (It’s also worth nothing that we never get a major sense of Mendez’s ability to improvise the way the Wired story explained; Affleck is too busy playing Stoic, Calm Protagonist.)
Affleck has been nominated for an Oscar exactly once, which was also his only win: At the tender ages of 26 and 28, he and Matt Damon took home the statuette for Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting (in which they also acted). In the intervening years, both got plenty of heartthrob roles, with mixed reception. It seemed only natural to envision them as heroic protagonists, but when Affleck starred opposite Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale in 2001′s Pearl Harbor, it was just so bad.
And he gets it! In promoting Argo, Affleck has given interviews where he ruefully admits that around 2003 people had written him off. He wishes he could just erase that entire year. I think he’s so eager to distance himself from bad performances that he puts himself in all of his work, when his directorial skills are enough to make us respect him more than we ever did. I’d just rather see him in roles that truly fit him.
Thankfully, it seems like the Gigli/Jersey Girl/Bennifer/Pearl Harbor era was just an awkward phase that dear Ben has clearly outgrown. And we don’t mind seeing him behind the camera more often, or out with wife Jennifer Garner and their adorable kids.
Photo: Warner Bros.