“I just thought: ‘This is so gross. It’s destructive to my career, it’s destructive to my soul, to my everything, I want to escape this,’ ” Affleck recalled at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. “I thought, ‘I’ve been wanting to direct for so long, if there’s ever going to be a moment to take two years away from acting and shoot and release [a movie], this is the time.’ ”
A few years later, Affleck released “Gone Baby Gone” ,his adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel that shocked critics and filmgoers alike with its astute sense of atmosphere, pacing and characterization. Affleck followed up that promising debut with “The Town” a crime thriller set, like “Gone Baby Gone,” in Boston near where he grew up that found Affleck upping his game as a filmmaker with a larger-scale story and explosive action. This week, he’ll come out with his third film, “Argo,” a political thriller that was an instant hit when it played the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.
“Argo,” based on the real-life story of a mission to rescue six American diplomats from Tehran at the height of the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, has earned plaudits not only as the kind of smart, classy good-story-well-told that Hollywood has otherwise bailed on in recent years, but also as a noteworthy advance for Affleck. He proves just as adept with geopolitics as with street crime and lowlifes, as capable of tricky emotional shifts as with drilling down into the tribal anthropology of his home town’s scruffier precincts. Tonally and technically more complex than anything he’s done, “Argo” is already garnering talk of Oscar nominations — not just for best picture, but also for Affleck as best director.
It’s hard to believe that film fans have a celebrity media feeding frenzy to thank for liberating a director whose taste, chops and unfussy visual approach recall the great naturalistic films of the 1970s.
“That span kind of saved my creative heart,” Affleck said, reflecting on the period between 2004 and 2006 when he was developing and directing “Gone Baby Gone.” “It kept me interested creatively in a business that was turning me off completely otherwise. And totally reinvigorated me and inspired me.” (During that time Affleck, now 40, also married actress Jennifer Garner, with whom he has three children.)
Affleck had directed before — in 1993, he directed a 16-minute show-biz-and-sexism spoof called “I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney” — but, as he admits now, “I was not a particularly good director at all.” It was acting that had exerted a stronger pull on Affleck, who while growing up in Cambridge, Mass. — attending the same school as a kid named Matt Damon — began pursuing such kid-actor staples as commercials and PBS series.