Some actors grow up on camera. Ben Affleck appears to be growing up behind it.
Ten years ago, he was the pop-culture laughingstock of movies like “Pearl Harbor” and “Gigli,” derided for a very public relationship with Jennifer Lopez that sold millions of gossip magazines while inviting untold scorn. He had the swagger of a movie star, but it seemed unearned.
Next week, Affleck’s third movie as a director opens, and it is a different story in every regard. It is also a glimpse of a more ambitious filmmaker and global citizen than almost everyone has suspected. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised.
“Argo” tells a tale so bizarre it has to be true: During the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-80, six US diplomatic workers hid for months in the home of the Canadian ambassador, ultimately fleeing the country by posing as a Canadian film crew making a nonexistent science-fiction B-movie called “Argo.”
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the CIA agent who masterminded the plan, but what is most remarkable about the film is what he does as a director. Impeccably crafted and intensely suspenseful, “Argo” juggles issues of global politics, governmental secrecy, and media image-making with breathtaking ease. Oscar talk has already begun. It’s not unwarranted.
After two highly regarded crime films set in Boston — “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town” — “Argo” ups the stakes and cements the Cambridge-raised Affleck’s new reputation as a filmmaker of talent. At 40, he has, at last, found genuine respect. Yet he is still mentally checking his wallet. Having been through the “Bennifer” mill will do that to a man.
“If I have another comeback in my career . . . ” Affleck sighs with a touch of whiplash. The director-star is in Boston in mid-September on the local leg of an “Argo” press sprint, holed up at the Four Seasons with a phalanx of publicists but happy to go one-on-one with a reporter in a quiet conference room. He is comfortable in his old hometown and he’s comfortable in his skin, but Affleck is also intent on reminding a listener and himself that it is best to keep perspective.
‘The more educated actor is a better actor, the more educated actor is a better director, and so on. And this is the first time it’s ever paid off.’
It has been a long road. Since 2003 — his “annus horribilis,” as he recently told Details magazine — Affleck has married Jennifer Garner, become a father, taken less starry acting roles, turned to directing, and done his level best to stay out of the tabloids. The start of his image rehabilitation can be traced to 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone,” his first turn in the director’s chair. That he himself did not appear in the movie seemed a fresh note of modesty at the time. More impressive, Affleck brought it all back home with arguably the finest, most pungently specific Boston movie since 1973’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”
A second well-regarded outing in the same vein, 2010’s “The Town,” confirmed Affleck’s new seriousness and work ethic for audiences and the film industry alike.
Says “Argo” screenwriter Chris Terrio of meeting his director for the first time, “It wasn’t like being summoned to an audience with the pope. Ben’s obviously had an innate writing and directing talent from his first film on, but the great thing was that all the other levels of movie stardom went away and you just had this film nerd with zero ego trying to make a good movie.”
The star plays a central role in his new film, but it’s hardly a star performance. Rather, his character is the glue that holds the many pieces of “Argo” together: the desperate machinations in the CIA offices, the darkly knowing comedy of the Hollywood scenes (featuring Alan Arkin as the wily producer of the faux film), the clearly delineated chaos in the streets of Iran, and the nail-shredding tension surrounding the Tehran Six.
“I lived in fear of how disparate the tones were,” Affleck acknowledges, discussing the opening sequence that recreates the Nov. 4, 1979, storming of the US embassy in Tehran while skillfully sketching in the decades of history that led up to that moment.
That sequence was not in the script. Affleck himself wrote it. “I was really concerned that the audience have context,” he says. “I wanted to say, look, here’s what happened: This guy got elected democratically, he nationalized the oil, we didn’t want to tolerate that, so with the British we overthrew him, and we put in a totalitarian regime where they practiced torture and all sorts of things that are counter to our values — our stated values, certainly — and it gave rise to a counterrevolution.
“So you know why they’re so outraged, for better or for worse, and it also hopefully . . . makes you think, oh, there are unintended results of revolution. And the business of getting into business with various leaders internationally is tricky, unpredictable, and has led to some uncertain results and not always positive ones. It maybe conjures up Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan.”
Wait, this is Ben Affleck talking? Well, yes, this is Ben Affleck, the former Middle Eastern studies major at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “It’s a little bit disingenuous to say I was a major, since I didn’t actually graduate,” he confesses with a shamefaced grin. “I did three years. . . . I felt like the more educated actor is a better actor, the more educated actor is a better director, and so on. And this is the first time it’s ever paid off.”
Not unsurprisingly, “Argo” extends sympathy beyond the beleaguered Americans and semi-comic Hollywood crew, casting only the most fanatic of the revolutionaries as villains while taking care to avoid demonizing everyday Iranians. The irony is that the director found the most willing Iranians to cast in California.
“We shot in Turkey, which is next to Iran, and we couldn’t get a single Farsi-speaking Iranian citizen to come be in our movie, because they were terrified of reprisals in their own country. And then we go back to L.A., which turns out to have half a million Persians in it. We’re flooded with Persians, I can’t get rid of Persians, they’ll improv, they’ll play all the parts. A lot of our major Farsi-speaking people were from, like, Glendale.”
Affleck is happy to talk about the nuances of making a film set in 1980 Iran at a time when our relationship with that country is more delicate than ever, but he mostly keeps the conversation focused on filmmaking rather than his own political endeavors. Most recently, he has testified before Congress on the horrors of the Congo conflict, endorsed the campaign against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, and hosted a Hollywood fund-raiser for Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
But he also is proud of this movie and wants you to see it, and his directing docket is too full for any rumors of his running for office to come true soon. Affleck is prepping a film adaptation of Stephen King’s postapocalyptic novel “The Stand” that may run to two parts.
After that is the James “Whitey” Bulger movie, in which Affleck will direct his old pal Matt Damon in the title role — the biggest project the two have worked on together since their “Good Will Hunting” breakthrough in 1997. As he has already proved, Affleck gets Boston on film better than any director working, and he knows there is a lot riding on this one.
“Whitey Bulger from the age of 25 to 80-whatever?” he says. “That’s epic. There’s probably no movie that will have received more critical scrutiny in the history of Boston. We’d be going way back to the period when he got arrested and went to Alcatraz and was experimented on with LSD, all the way to him being in the farmer’s market in Santa Monica.”
Beyond that, Affleck is a new father again; he and Garner had their third child, a boy, this year. And he is constantly educating himself about the cinematic past. “I got one of these books, you know, ‘1000 Movies to See Before You Die,’ ” he says, “and I’d better not die soon, because I’m not there yet. Drives my wife crazy, because we go to bed and then she’s gotta listen to ‘The Battle of Algiers’ for an hour and a half.”
The swagger? It’s long gone. Asked about his long-term goals, Affleck does not pontificate.
“To keep getting hired,” he says, laughing.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.