Exaggerating redemption: the premature postmortem of Ben Affleck

I won’t pretend that Ben Affleck has always been established as one of our country’s foremost artists. He spent a long time with his name framing the question of, “What the hell happened to…?” When Zach Baron states in his Argo review, “It’s hard to explain for those who weren’t there how bad this got, circa 2004,” he’s not exaggerating a whole lot. A mere six years after winning an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Good Will Hunting, Gigli became an all-consuming punchline. People who hadn’t even seen the film (that is to say, virtually everyone in the world, apart from professional critics and amateur faux-masochists) turned it into an easy reference point for how bad things really could get. “Hey, Bush never found WMDs in Iraq, but at least he didn’t make Gigli!” That sort of thing. The fact that nobody ever brings the film up right now is a testament to how transitory it was, even at the time. In fact, I think it’s a testament to how bad things didn’t get for Affleck that only cynical film nerds would be terribly surprised that a guy who won an Oscar for screenwriting would turn out to be a pretty decent director, too.

The problem is one of the rubric used to measure Affleck’s fall from grace. The rubic was basically Affleck’s homeboy, Matt Damon, who had already been in a tenure track toward being minted as a bona fide, top-billed star. The assumption was (I guess) that Affleck, who was similarly good-looking and possessed of a comparable screen presence, would follow a parallel track. A lot of Affleck’s career decisions seemed to confirm this. Damon played the titular soldier in Saving Private Ryan, while Affleck was the romantic lead in Pearl Harbor; Damon assumed the mantle of literary superspy Jason Bourne, while Affleck was tapped to take over as Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Both of them showed up in a number of Kevin Smith comedies, both played around in the pseudo-indie Sundance circuit a bit, and both had a couple of flops. The biggest difference that I can see is that Damon’s hits were generally heavier, his indie films earned a bit more crit cred, and his flops weren’t nearly as spectacular. As career decisions go, Affleck had worse luck than his compatriot, but his seems to have fallen victim to that old, ridiculous Tinseltown canard that a leading actor can be “box office poison.” He was judged accordingly.

By that standard, sure, I suppose that Ben Affleck was in some need of redemption, as Baron’s headline indicates. By any other standard, though, Affleck wasn’t actually doing too badly.

First, let’s consider that, even as a young up-and-comer, he was a marked talent. His breakout was Richard Linklater’s amazing Dazed and Confused, and prior to Good Will Hunting consecrating the Affleck/Damon bromance of the century, he’d done a memorable turn as the butt-bedeviled jackass in Smith’s Mallrats, followed by the lead role — and one of his best performances — in Chasing Amy, which was released the same year as Good Will Hunting. (By the by, both Damon and Affleck have credits in School Ties and Glory Daze. For anyone who cares.)

The years immediately following that Oscar win were pretty good to Affleck, too. Baron’s narrative takes the opposite tack. “He had a bad run — The Sum of All Fears, Paycheck, Daredevil, Jersey Girl. Pearl Harbor, if you don’t happen to be a fan of the lesser Michael Bay or the concept of lighting millions of dollars on fire just to watch it burn.” Slagging Pearl Harbor is par for the course, but the “lighting millions of dollars on fire” comment is confusing: Pearl Harbor was a box office hit. Anecdotally, I’d say that it’s probably one of his best-remembered films. Whatever its cinematic qualities, the average moviegoer probably thought it was pretty good. Including it as part of his “bad run” from the perspective of his perceived cultural cachet seems suspect, since the culture-at-large appears to think Michael Bay films are pretty awesome.

As for those other films, allow me to light my cred on fire to watch it burn: they’re not that bad. Well, okay, Daredevil is pretty awful. The Sum of All Fears was mediocre, but, like Pearl Harbor, it was actually a pretty big hit, if an ultimately forgettable one. Paycheck and Jersey Girl were flops, but I actually rather liked them. Paycheck is especially rather entertaining, if you take on the terms of a John Woo auteurist exercise, and Affleck is pretty darn good in it. I’m not saying that my personal disposition toward those films is sufficient to rewrite their cultural baggage, but I don’t think the conventional wisdom — that Affleck’s career flat-out sucked for nearly a decade — is supported by the actual merits of the films that were name-checked, despite their reputations.

Besides those, let’s not forget that a number of Affleck’s post-Oscar films either made money or broke even, including Armageddon, Shakespeare in Love, Bounce, Changing Lanes, Boiler Room, and Dogma. When Baron mentions Hollywoodland, it’s to suggest a thematic resonance between the state of Affleck’s career and the suicidal fate of George Reeves — as if the cathartic shock of playing a floundering, though talented, actor prompted Affleck to turn things around for himself with a hands-on approach. I don’t doubt that a lot of the people who saw Hollywoodland had the same thought; Affleck is simply great in the film, and coming off of several years of mediocre films, the promise of his Oscar indeed seemed to be a bit dissipated. Yet the fact that his performance in that film is outstanding, and the fact that he had the sense to seize it when it came along, shows that his creative instincts hadn’t exactly gone to seed. Instead, I think it shows that it’s rather difficult to extrapolate personal psychology from career decisions. Some of Affleck’s biggest films were critical disasters (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon), while the pivotal lynchpin of Baron’s redemption narrative, Hollywoodland, tanked out at just under $15 million. In most of his films, Affleck gave solid performances, and in a few, he was in damn fine form.

Again, it doesn’t surprise me that Affleck would turn out to be a good writer and director (not to mention a pretty solid leading man in his own films), given that he’s been a fairly dependable artist this whole time. Yet it seems that critics want to turn Affleck’s growing stature as an industry auteur as some sort of inspiring, refreshing novelty that demands explanation. To wit, the final paragraph in Baron’s review:

Argo, in short, relies less on any kind of singular auteurist genius than on a whole mass of people — actors and editors and set designers and, yes, its quiet lead actor and exceedingly competent director — doing their jobs well. It’s not quite a blueprint for anyone else — Hollywood has learned the hard way, and to its perpetual detriment, not to bet on execution. But the recipe’s worked for one once-struggling actor, who has just made a great movie in part because he finally took seriously the task of being merely good.

When Baron says “once-struggling,” I don’t think he’s talking about the days of uncredited roles as “Basketball Player #10” in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s clearly talking about all the stuff that Affleck’s done since Good Will Hunting, which itself was spun as a sort of novelty act. (Actors who successfully write their own material? Good heavens, who would believe it?) In a way, I’m sure that this narrative works in Affleck’s favor; it’s probably easier for him to go along with the whole redemptive arc of his directorial projects than to ask condescending entertainment journos, “What the hell do you mean, I ‘finally took seriously the task of merely being good’? I’ve seriously tried to be good for thirty years, you sod!” But I kind of wish he would, especially given paragraphs like this:

These days Affleck’s transformation into a reliably fascinating director and amiable, earnest student of film history — The Town was an unashamed homage to The Friends of Eddie Coyle; for Argo, he cites All the President’s Men, Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and even Slap Shot — is so complete and self-evident that no one even really bothers to question it. He’s far from the first guy to unhex his image as a frivolous person by directing films — George Clooney and Clint Eastwood, among many others, did it too. Like Clooney and Eastwood, Affleck even gets a certain artistic leverage from his own checkered past — that’s one of the reasons the Hollywood stuff in Argo is so delicious.

Why would anyone question it, especially given the previous success of artists like Clooney and Eastwood — neither of whom I was aware were considered entirely frivolous prior to becoming directors? Is it really so weird that Affleck (a film actor) would be an earnest student of film history? (It’s not like he has Sasha Grey’s pre-Soderbergh filmography.) As checkered as Affleck’s career has been, I would think that the Hollywood stuff in Argo would be delicious whether it was made by the star of Gigli or not. Pretty much any decent showbiz sendup coming out of Hollywood comes with the boon of having been churned out by the system it’s lampooning. Is The Player a good movie because Robert Altman directed critical/commercial detours like Popeye and O.C. and Stiggs (there are probably better examples; you can fill in your own), or is it a good movie because Altman consistently made interesting and/or good films over the course of a couple decades, and brought his considerable talent to bear on a subject he knew intimately?

As I stated, it’s not like Affleck has always been regarded as a national treasure, and it’s not like everything he’s done has been great, but Baron is granting legitimacy to the conventional narrative that Affleck fell from grace and is finally clawing his way back up. This strikes me as a bit uncritical. For one thing, Affleck’s fallen status (such as it may be) is largely one that was cooked up and promulgated by critics and cultural commentators in the first place, despite the evidence that he was still a vital actor who contributed to good or financially viable films. For another thing, it’s an incredibly condescending, uncharitable narrative, and those aspects come through loud and clear in the excerpts I’ve posted here.

Using the discussion of Argo as a pretext to fit it into a false narrative about the rise, fall, and rise of a popular entertainer does a disservice both to the film and to its filmmaker. Baron allows Gigli — a largely-forgotten film nearly a decade old — to frame the criticism, regardless of how it fits into the larger context of Affleck’s career or the machinations of the Hollywood system, which is full of artists who’ve ridden the roller coaster up, down, and around for more years than Affleck has been around. If Argo provides a golden opportunity to ponder the vicissitudes of how public perception and personal artistry overlap, I would think it to be a great way to question or deconstruct the narrative of why Affleck needed redemption in the first place. Of course, that might require reframing the narrative from Affleck’s career choices to the introspection of how critics have told the story of that career. That might not be so pleasant, because it might mean admitting that perhaps the cineliterati somehow failed to notice how good Ben Affleck has been all along.☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

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