The Cinema of Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck has accumulated a few reputations during his career and most of them are as unflattering as they are deserved. Unfortunately, the title he deserves most but has yet to receive from the public is that of respected filmmaker. It’s not a mystery why. James Gray was never a drunken heartthrob that made girls nervous and guys angry, even as they mimicked his every mannerism. James Gray was also never an actor and never found himself on the cover of YM Magazine. No one cared if James Gray made it back from an about-to-explode asteroid and maybe that’s why he’s considered an artist. That’s not to say Gray didn’t earn his reputation, it just sheds light on why Ben Affleck might never receive the credit he deserves.
Affleck’s filmography is short but already miles longer than many other auteurs that are cited by cinephiles as important. Don’t forget, Affleck is both a writer and director, a creator of personal cinema that features characters that just as easily could have been dreamt up by Emile Zola, a 19th century writer who also unapologetically shared his first hand experience of the lower classes. It’s true that he’s seen his share of success at the Academy Awards, but Oscars tend to only boost the reputations of those already respected. In Affleck’s case, the gold statue is just a highlight of how meaningless awards are and the movies that win them.
Taking a look at the movies it becomes evident just how important Ben Affleck is to the cinematic sphere. The Hollywood ocean is one of big budget cartoons and “personal” films that border the wrong side of pretention. Affleck creates movies that get people excited about the real world around them. The movie industry became important when it started creating worlds that audiences could believe, even if they weren’t very believable, and few directors reflect that culture of cinema today. Ben Affleck is one of those directors.
Gone Baby Gone –
Synopsis: Two Boston area detectives investigate a little girl's kidnapping, which ultimately turns into a crisis both professionally and personally.
If Affleck never made another movie, Gone Baby Gone would be enough to land him in the upper pantheon of filmmakers. He took a risk making this particular movie, about a PI searching for a missing girl, but because of how masterfully he navigated the story, setting and characters, audiences never had the chance to notice.
The private investigator genre was a cornerstone of Hollywood’s golden age, but unfortunately has more or less fallen by the wayside. Sure every now and again we get a glimpse at how interesting a story can be about a person searching for something that might not even be important to the story. But then again, every once in a while we get a western too. These movies are the exception, not the rule. Maybe it’s because the PI industry was a premonition for what’s currently happening within the newspaper industry, a dinosaur that can’t be kept alive on nostalgia alone. The classic gumshoe was replaced by technology and the camera hates the digital revolution. While all of this is true, the movie doesn’t feature a single building block that feels anachronistic.
Gone Baby Gone proves that the PI genre can be just as important in the modern world, with our many unfortunate modern problems, as it was back in the 30’s and 40’s. And although most of us have never even come across an ad for an investigator, at least not one handling matters outside of divorce, Affleck has us believing that Patrick Kenzie makes a real living playing Philip Marlowe on the streets of Boston. Patrick, played perfectly by Affleck’s own brother Casey, is no Jake Gittes from Chinatown, and that’s the point. Updating a genre is about taking the core elements of why the original films were so important and dressing them up in the modern world. Bad things happen and sometimes it takes people living on the edge of bad to figure out why. While fedoras have been replaced with cellphones and track jackets, the tragically bad unfortunately remains the same and Affleck displays that with intensity and grit and most importantly, humanity.
No, a police detective movie is not the same as a private detective movie, for the same reason Batman and Jim Gordon aren’t interchangeable. A private eye lives in the grey zone and makes it impossible to figure out what side of the law they feel more comfortable on. Ben Affleck showed us why these movies are still relevant and entertaining and how they can still be believable. He did more than that, he created one of the greatest movies in the genre at a time when the genre was considered dead, and he did it with his debut feature. The same was once said about John Huston.
The Town –
Synopsis: As he plans his next job, a longtime thief tries to balance his feelings for a bank manager connected to one of his earlier heists, as well as the F.B.I. Agent looking to bring him and his crew down.
The gangster genre is a totally unique beast from the PI genre, and Affleck shows his understanding of the differences when he tackled The Town as his follow up to Gone Baby Gone. While the investigator genre scares us with an inside glimpse into the underbelly of our urban centers, the gangster genre aims to help us better understand the beings that crawl around in the dark. We’re not on this journey to judge Doug MacRay and his cohorts; we’re simply asked to see them as people. They are human beings and the motivations that drive their actions are just as deep as the ones that push the rest of us in our own day-to-day lives. Most of us grew up to type away on a keyboard from 9 to 5 while an acute few grew up to rob banks. Gem, played by Jeremy Renner in an Oscar nominated performance, is a villain. What he isn’t is two-dimensional. When we find him in the period of his life captured during the movie, we’re seeing a person with a history, with a lot of life events that shaped who he became. We can judge him as evil, and he might very well be evil, but he’s also someone we might strike a conversation up with while on a concession line at a ballgame. He’s more than just evil and we get to see that.
Much like in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck presents a setting and population that are painfully real. In every voice you can hear acceptance that a better life is meant for someone else, someone smarter or better looking or with a stronger moral fiber. Gangsters, in the real world, travel in circles that are not pretty and what makes it unattractive to the audience is that it’s a reflection on all of us of what we could have been under different circumstances. Affleck shows us a population that often gets branded as trash, but whether these people are lowlifes or not they exist and he forces us to experience them without the opportunity to look away.
The Departed is a phenomenal movie but it’s impossible to look at the same way after viewing a movie like The Town. And I say this admitting that I saw The Departed six times in theaters during its original release. The Departed and The Town are movies that were filmed blocks from each other but one is not like the other. Jack Nicholson’s rag tag team of hoodlums look like they're straight out of central casting. It’s a Hollywood pageant recreating hearsay from the streets of Boston. It’s a terrific movie but it doesn’t teach us anything about the world it’s trying to recreate. Affleck delivers us the real thing. His characters look more like they’d been featured on an episode of Cops than actors showing up for a casting call. It’s not a knock on Scorsese, in fact, without movies like Mean Streets and Raging Bull there wouldn’t be a movie like The Town. It’s simply pointing out that Affleck has a very deep understanding of the community and this movie cinematically exemplifies that intimate knowledge.
When originally seeing The Town I couldn't help but wonder what Casey Affleck would have done with the leading role. MacRay after all is the brains of the operation and perhaps having an actor that didn't shadow the others physically might have worked better. It also doesn't hurt that Casey is a far superior actor to Ben. With later viewings I've accepted that while swapping the two actors might have made the movie better, the casting in the movie doesn't hamper the narrative experience.
Synopsis: Acting under the cover of a Hollywood producer scouting a location for a science fiction film, a CIA agent launches a dangerous operation to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran in 1979.
Ben Affleck’s career as a director mirrors many of those from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Just like actors used to be groomed, so were filmmakers. He conquered the genre picture and it was time to see if he could handle
something larger scale. The experiment was Argo and the result was an incredible period piece that seems like a too crazy to be true story. While the events depicted might have actually occurred, that’s irrelevant when retelling the narrative on the big screen. Simply telling the audience that something is based on a true story is not enough. Knowing something is true, and believing you’re watching it as it’s happening are two different experiences. To make a great movie Affleck had the burden of selling an adventure, not just information.
The outcome of the movie is no mystery; it was headline news. What’s interesting is the road that led to the liberation of the U.S. hostages. It was a crazy plan that might… just… work! The success of the movie comes in Affleck’s acknowledging the ridiculousness of “the plan” and embracing humor as a tool. Argo is not a comedy, it just understands how unbelievable the storyline is and allows the characters to say exactly what the audience is thinking. When you can relate to the characters, you can relate to the world they live in. By admitting to the silliness of it all, it becomes that much more apparent how desperate the situation was and how out-of-the-box thinking was the only option left on the table.
With Argo Affleck proved he is more than just a one trick pony. He’s just as capable of telling an international espionage thriller as he was in telling a neighborhood story. It’s possible he’s capable of telling any story he sets his mind to and that’s the trademark of a great filmmaker.
Live by Night –
Synopsis: A group of Boston-bred gangsters set up shop in balmy Florida during the Prohibition era, facing off against the competition and the Ku Klux Klan.
Live by Night is a terrible movie and borderline unwatchable. Affleck stumbled hard with this one. The story is sprawling and the characters feel more like caricatures. The biggest shame is the potential because it would have been interesting to see the development and resolution of a conflict between organized crime and the KKK, an organized criminal operation in their own right. It’s a conflict we rarely, if ever, see on screen and was buried in an unoriginal costume pageant.
The movie wants to be an epic, spanning the trials and tribulations of a Boston stick-up man turned gangster kingpin in sunny Tampa. At the same time the movie makes use of narrative devices designed for a story of far smaller scope. Joe Coughlin, played by Affleck himself, is motivated to move to Florida in order to avenge the death of his soul mate. While in Florida he develops an empire and becomes driven by the construction of a grand casino. Near the end of the film we learn along with Coughlin that his original soul mate is in fact alive and well and located within driving distance. I say first
soul mate because by this point in the movie he’s found love again and the new romance is just as developed as every other aspect of the movie. Everything seems to happen for a payoff later in the movie. The big twist of learning that Emma Gould, played by Sienna Miller, is still alive expects a bigger gasp than it receives and the same can be said for the conversation between her and Coughlin that follows. By this point in the movie the importance of his feelings towards her have been long forgotten by the audience because it was just another paper thin situation in a movie serializing paper thin situations. We’re told things are important but we’re never made to believe they truly are.
With Gone Baby Gone and The Town Affleck was able to translate the core of what worked about those genre movies in their heyday through the scope of a modern lens. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to apply that same understanding when taking it all back to the 1930’s. The gangster genre was almost the anti-Hollywood genre. It was about ugly, it was about raw, it was about rebellion and antagonism. The movies themselves were gangsters living wildly in a world of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Live by Night draws more from The Wizard of Oz than it does from The Roaring Twenties and it’s a shame.
There are highpoints in the film, specifically the performance of the always on-point Chris Cooper as a local police chief and Elle Fanning as his wayward daughter. They’re the only characters whose stories feel like they exist outside of the presented narrative and serves as a hard reminder of what the rest of the movie is lacking. There was a great movie in Lehane’s source novel. It’s evident without even reading the book too, simply from the glimpses of his world Affleck shines light onto. Affleck dropped the ball on this one but it happens, even with great directors.
Witness for the Prosecution –
Synopsis: A veteran lawyer must defend a man in what promises to be the most dramatic trial of his career.
Witness for the Prosecution was announced as Ben Affleck’s follow up movie, a remake of a Billy Wilder classic. Although this movie has yet to be made, it’s one we should all look forward to because great filmmakers are ones we should always keep an eye on. Sure he made a terrible movie, almost all directors make terrible movies now and then. It’s with the hope he’ll make another great one that we should keep coming back for more. For all of his reputations, that’s one Affleck has proven he deserves.