The Academy Awards aren't until February, but as far as Roger Ebert is concerned, we already know who's going to take home the big prize. "The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture will be Ben Affleck's tense new thriller Argo," he wrote on September 10, not because he thinks it's the best movie of the year (although he does think it's "just plain a terrific film"), but because it received such a strong reception at the Toronto Film Festival, which has been the launching pad for other Oscar winners like Slumdog Millionaire and The King's Speech.
Argo looks like a part of the Oscar conversation for the rest of the year. Forgetting for a moment that it's a good film, this thriller (about a U.S. effort to rescue six American hostages during the 1979 Iranian revolution by pretending they were part of a science-fiction film being scouted in Tehran) just feels like an Oscar movie. It's based on a true story. It's got an impressive cast, including Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin. It's an intelligent crowd-pleaser aimed at grownups rather than the kids who flock to The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man. Even if it weren't much of a movie, Argo would still have all the core components necessary to contend for an Oscar.
What's amazing about all this is who directed Argo. It's Ben Affleck, the guy whose career you had probably written off about eight years ago. It's OK—I kinda did, too. Now look at him: In the last few years, he's had one of the most successful (and, honestly, gratifying) comebacks in recent film history. The man reinvented himself, and it worked. How'd we get here, again?
When first you met Affleck, it was as an actor, probably in a smaller part in something like Dazed and Confused or Mallrats. His first really promising role was as the lovestruck comic-book artist in 1997's Chasing Amy, which was also the movie that made people think writer-director Kevin Smith might have genuine potential as a filmmaker. (We were a far more optimistic people in the late '90s.) Affleck proved himself to be a compelling romantic figure in Chasing Amy, and that year got even better for him a few months later when Good Will Hunting opened and won two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for him and his good buddy Matt Damon. Whether you liked the movie or not, it just seemed unbelievable that these two kids were now Oscar winners, something that even they seemed painfully aware of when they gave their oh-gosh-golly-gee acceptance speech...
Winning an Oscar is great, but afterward it was easy to assume that that moment was going to be the highlight of these guys' career. After all, went the conventional thinking, how could they have written something as sensitive and mature as Good Will Hunting? (That was the core joke of Matt & Ben, Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers' satiric 2003 play, which argued that those two bozos didn't write the script—it just fell out of the sky and into their lucky hands.)
After his Oscar win, Affleck focused on star vehicles like Armageddon and Forces of Nature, which aren't the sorts of movies that will convince your critics that you're an artist of great depth. Tellingly, when he appeared in Shakespeare in Love, his supporting performance was overshadowed by the fact that he was dating Gwyneth Paltrow. He was becoming a celebrity tabloid figure—the hunk who had somehow won an Oscar.
But even then, Affleck was working hard to prove he was more than that media caricature of him. In 2000, he was in the romantic drama Bounce (with Paltrow), and two years later he clashed with Samuel L. Jackson in the underrated Changing Lanes. Clearly, he was serious about flexing his dramatic side, and he had the chops for it. (Not that it always worked: His "Always Be Closing"-like monologue in Boiler Room strove way too hard to ape Alec Baldwin.) But those riskier roles were lower-profile affairs. At the same time, he was doing Pearl Harbor, The Sum of All Fears and Daredevil, movies that a lot more people saw and probably didn't like.
Around that same time, he took on his worst role, the one that threatened to ruin his career: He dated Jennifer Lopez. It wasn't Lopez herself that was the problem. It was the two of them together. Rightly or not, they quickly became everything that's odious about celebrity couples: self-obsessed pretty people running around flaunting their wealth and fame, and contributing nothing to society. Sure, Gigli was a disaster, but it's hard to argue that his appearance in Lopez's "Jenny From the Block" video wasn't even more of a train wreck for him. It's not just that he agreed to be in the video: It's that he comes across as a boring Ken doll. (And, of course, there's the suntan lotion moment, which will probably haunt him for the rest of his life.)
Meanwhile, his old pal Damon was starring in Ocean's movies and becoming a franchise with the Bourne trilogy. While Affleck was drowning, Damon had proved he had grown up from being that goofy kid on stage at the Oscars.
That very easily could have been the end of the story for Affleck. (It's funny to think that Ryan Reynolds is sort of in the exact same spot now that Affleck was then: a handsome guy that people have a hard time taking seriously.) But Affleck started turning things around by appearing in a low-budget indie that just about nobody saw. Yet it's one of the best things he's ever done.
In 2006, he played George Reeves (the actor in the 1950s Superman TV show) in Hollywoodland, a drama about a private detective (Adrien Brody) investigating whether or not Reeves' death really was a suicide. The movie's only so-so, but Affleck was a revelation in it, turning Reeves into a mournful, tragic figure. The way the film tells it, Reeves was a journeyman actor who peaked early with a part in Gone With the Wind but who ultimately regretted that the only thing anybody was ever going to remember him for was playing a guy in a cape. It's easy to see why Affleck might have been drawn to the part: Reeves' career sort of paralleled his own. Maybe Affleck feared that he'd be forever known as the pretty boy who rubbed lotion on J-Lo's butt. But you didn't have to be a cut-rate psychoanalyst to appreciate the empathy Affleck brought to the role. He was reintroducing himself to us.
That reintroduction continued the following year when he made his directing debut with Gone Baby Gone. He stayed behind the camera and produced a solid crime drama that most critics liked, simply because they didn't think he had it in him. He got great performances from his brother Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan, earning her an Oscar nomination in the process. That bid for respect continued in 2010's The Town, which he directed and also starred in. The movie showed he could handle action, and again he put together a stellar cast and guided them to great work. (Jeremy Renner grabbed an Oscar nod.) Suddenly, critics didn't need to feel apologetic for liking one of Affleck's movies: He had established himself as a solid director. Probably just as importantly, he wasn't in bad blockbusters anymore—let's all agree to forget that he was in He's Just Not That Into You—and instead did solid supporting work in dramas like State of Play and The Company Men. (And he's really funny as a moron in Mike Judge's Extract.)
And now we come to Argo. I don't think it's an amazing movie, but it's damn entertaining. Affleck's good at that. He makes smart movies that work at the multiplexes without insulting audiences' intelligence. (He's doing what Ron Howard does at his best: popcorn movies with a bit of class to them.) That doesn't mean he's an auteur or a Best Director Oscar winner, but god knows we need more Afflecks in Hollywood. And, seriously, who would have thought we'd even be having a conversation like this back when he was just half of Bennifer?
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.