From Boston to Iran: How director Ben Affleck strikes Hollywood balance

The New York Film Critics Circle awards kicked of the annual awards season, which culminates Feb. 24 with the Oscars.  Sadly missing from the critic’s awardees list, however, was Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film.  MUSE writer Bryan Sih takes a look at the impact this famous Bostonian has had on films and why this latest movie should not be left out of the Oscar buzz. 

Ben Affleck is in consideration for many awards after producing, directing and starring in Argo. Photo Courtesy Claire Folger/ Warner Bros. Pictures

Ben Affleck joins the ranks of those who have successfully stood behind and in front of the camera with his latest film,Argo (2012). Most filmmakers would find it unthinkable to do both tasks simultaneously, let alone with the virtuosity and clear-sightedness that Affleck exhibits. The performances of Argo don’t miss a note, and the film’s style and formal elements are equally commendable. An examination of his other films shows equal attention to the elements that count, such as performance, plot and a proper dosage of action to keep the American audiences interested. But it is Affleck’s understanding of the human condition that lies at the crux of his films.

Affleck got his start in acting, which may explain Affleck’s understanding of the deeper human implications in his narratives. He avoids getting tangled up in political or social commentary. In a previous MUSE interview with Affleck, he noted he has no political agendas hidden beneath Argo and would “bring John McCain’s wife to [the film], as well as his hometown die-hard liberal Bostonians.”

Another film that could have easily become a social commentary, (arguably his most complex film) Gone Baby Gone(2007), instead achieves profound insights to mother-child relationships through its complex ambiguity. The viewer undergoes a rare experience. The ending is determined not on the director’s intent but on the audience’s own personal moral stance. It asks each viewer to decide for herself the “just outcome” for the little girl who is kidnapped, and does so without a significant lean to one side or the other. Rarely does a film spark such fervent, deserved conversations post-viewing.

Furthermore, the film is unflinching in its portrayal of crime. In one scarring scene, the protagonist discovers the tortured corpse of a child. This brutal realism isn’t gratuitous in a narrative that asks the audience to be fully engaged in its explorations—in fact, it sucks us in even further than if we had distance from the characters’ traumatic experience.

Then there is The Town, a film that brings the gritty underbelly of Boston crime to the foreground once more. WhereasGone Baby Gone follows a moral do-gooder, The Town sits beside a criminal as he tries to escape his volatile lifestyle. At its core, The Town is both a mob and heist movie without the Hollywood glamour. The criminals are intelligent but lack the all-too-convenient skillsets of an Ocean’s Eleven.

Instead, they wear nun masks, drive large vans and rely on automatics when things get messy. Arguably, the chaotic, run-and-gun heists of The Town are more compelling to watch unfold because the characters must react instead of readjust. Where other heist movies rely on characters to have every step planned out so they only alter the plan when mistakes occur, The Town captures the unpredictability of crime and the fluid moment-by-moment decisions that can result in life or death —therefore mistakes happen, and characters die.

Also of note is Jeremy Renner’s performance as Jem. He embodies a sadistic criminal who secretly knows he can’t escape impeding justice.  Affleck and Renner both take the narrative to new heights with their subtle performances in this mature sophomore effort that paved the way for Argo.

Argo is the title of the cover film that helped evacuate hostages during the Iranian hostage crisis. Affleck’s film owes its story to this unmade script, and thus takes its name in tribute. By the title, one senses the reverence with which Affleck handles the portrayal of the Hollywood system, the death of countless unrealized screenplays, and the remarkable producers that rose to this momentous occasion. Argo restores our hope in film because it shows how film can affect real human lives.

The Iranian hostage crisis represents an extreme example, but a significant one at that. For all the Blockbuster busts that are forever symptomatic of Hollywood, movies still have the potential to make a difference on human lives. Argo is a subtle reminder of film’s power and perhaps Affleck’s proclamation for his love of cinema. And it doesn’t hurt that the film is wildly entertaining, suspenseful and based on a true story.

After Argo, Affleck has proven to be a formidable director that is quietly climbing to the upper ranks of beloved American auteurs. He’s a director that favors strong narratives over gimmicky camerawork and pedantic film allusions — a filmmaking spirit of utility and realism. He strikes a remarkable balance between action and drama, a rare balance almost never found among artists who achieve the same moral complexity as Affleck. This balance is struck through his characters, who must maintain their deep moral absolutes given the circumstances. This inevitably causes them to clash with other characters standing fundamentally opposed, and thus action arises. Gone Baby Gone’s protagonist will stop at nothing to get the kidnapped girl back to her mother. But when his girlfriend eventually opposes him, another layer of complexity is added to the already ambiguous narrative. The Town’s protagonist values his freedom above all, and this informs his subsequent actions against friend and foe alike. Argo features a character that believes in his sci-fi movie cover so adamantly that he risks the lives of six others in order to see it through.

All of Affleck’s characters must externalize these entrenched beliefs in order to bring order to their world, the way they see fit. The repercussions are, in a word, epiphanic to the viewer. Whether set in Boston or Iran, whether they feature law-abiding citizens, criminals or CIA agents, Affleck’s films become universal and relevant, sure to be treasured as American masterpieces for years to come.

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