'The Town,' 'Casino Jack' and 'Client 9' take the stage at Toronto Film Festival

TAKE TWO: Ben Affleck's second directorial effort is set in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown.
TAKE TWO: Ben Affleck's second directorial effort is set in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. (Carlo Allegri/associated Press)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

TORONTO -- Ben Affleck, tall, square-jawed and relaxed in jeans and a gray shirt, looks like he shouldn't have a care in the world. But during some brief face time with a reporter at the Toronto International Film Festival, he admits to feeling "huge pressure."

His sophomore directorial effort, "The Town," will be released on Friday. "I've come to a time in my life where everything is make or break," Affleck says in his quiet room in the buzzy Four Seasons hotel, while awaiting the film's North American premiere here. "Particularly if you direct and take two years of your life . . . for one plastic disc."

Even for a movie business veteran, waiting for the box-office numbers, he says, is "really nerve-racking and stressful."

Judging from reactions so far to "The Town," a crime drama starring Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm and Rebecca Hall, Affleck can breathe easy. Reviews out of Venice, where "The Town" had its world premiere this month, were largely favorable, as were reactions in Toronto, where Affleck was joined by wife Jennifer Garner for the gala screening. Affleck's brother Casey was also in town, with his maybe-mock/maybe-not documentary "I'm Still Here," about Joaquin Phoenix. As was best friend Matt Damon, who stars in Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter," also making its bow at the festival, which runs through Sunday.

"It reminds me of a few years ago, when we had a year with 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' 'The Assassination of Jesse James' and 'Gone Baby Gone,' " Affleck recalls of the 2007 Toronto festival. "It just reminds me how lucky we are to all have a chance to make movies."

Affleck surprised many viewers and critics with "Gone Baby Gone," a thriller set in his home town of Boston that crackled with taut pacing and an assured sense of atmosphere and tone. "The Town" is set in Boston, too -- in the working-class Irish neighborhood of Charlestown -- but instead of a low-simmer intensity, Affleck creates a series of explosive robberies and car chases that are usually absent from the wordy, theatrical set pieces many actors-turned-directors favor.

"I felt self-conscious about the idea that you're an actor and you can only do one thing, that misconception people have," Affleck says. "The first movie I directed was very small and contained, and I think that ultimately writing and acting are the things that make movies work. However, they are movies, and they have a visual language and you have to understand that."

Given Affleck's well-known penchant for politics, we had to ask: Is there a political movie in his future?

"I'm less interested in the didactic aspect of politics, and even in the partisan aspect of politics, than in the sort of complicated side of it," he says thoughtfully. "If I were to make a political movie, it would be an examination and in some ways an indictment, of the American political system. . . . Because we've set it up in such a way that it can't ever really accomplish what it's supposed to do. It's designed to serve a set of interests, and not to serve any of the people who really care about this stuff, on the right or the left. That's something I think is really interesting, the idea that we've devolved into pure political gamesmanship over any kind of substance."

* * *

For a study in pure gamesmanship, we turn to another premiere here: "Casino Jack," George Hickenlooper's dramatized account of the Jack Abramoff scandal, starring Kevin Spacey in the role of the disgraced lobbyist. The film was shown to the press Sunday and received a mostly warm welcome, with several members of the audience laughing appreciatively at Spacey's impressions of everyone from Al Pacino to Dolph Lundgren. (Abramoff, who was sent to prison in 2006 for defrauding Indian tribes and business partners, grew up in Hollywood and is a notorious movie fan; he produced Lundgren's "Red Scorpion." )

Just before Hickenlooper arrived in Toronto, "Casino Jack" was picked up by ATO Pictures for distribution, allowing the filmmaker to enjoy the festival stress-free. "It's a relief," Hickenlooper says over a glass of red wine at a party thrown by the Creative Coalition in his honor on Sunday night. (The movie is expected to open in December.)

In "Casino Jack" -- which co-stars Barry Pepper and Jon Lovitz as Abramoff associates Michael Scanlon and Adam Kidan -- Hickenlooper affects a startlingly goofy tone, often staging the story of political corruption, cynicism and criminality like a farce, albeit one with unsettling, sober overtones.

"It's a narrative interpretation," Hickenlooper says of his approach. "It's almost a musical. As a filmmaker, and as a former Republican myself, I always saw Abramoff as a metaphor for what went wrong with the [conservative] vision." The Right is about "empowering the individual and less government," he says, but "that vision got warped and distorted into a culture of avarice and greed."

The director and Spacey met Abramoff in prison, where, Hickenlooper says, "the first thing he tries to do is lobby me not to make the movie!"

But once Abramoff realized Hickenlooper wouldn't be deterred, he opened up. At one point he even provided the director with the framing device used in "Casino Jack," wherein Abramoff narrates a letter he's writing while in jail.

"There was a moment the last day that I met with him, that he gave me a letter to give to Kevin Spacey to give to President Clinton," Hickenlooper recalls. Thus what may be the most surreal conceit of "Casino Jack" is actually "a moment of art imitating life."

* * *

In many ways, "Casino Jack" is art imitating life after life has been captured in art. Or something like that. One of the people who saw "Casino Jack" in Toronto was Alex Gibney, who this year released a documentary about Abramoff called "Casino Jack and the United States of Money."

The director was at Toronto with "Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer," about another disgraced political figure whose Icarus-like rise was followed by an equally mythic fall. At first Gibney wasn't interested in the Spitzer scandal when the film's producers approached him, but "then it became such a hot-button issue for all sorts of reasons, and that's the reason I liked it."

Spitzer spearheaded the investigations of firms implicated in the 2008 financial meltdown, but for Gibney "it wasn't just a financial scandal story, it was a story about men and women, it was a story about infidelity, it was a story about power."

As for Abramoff and Spitzer, Gibney says, "there's certainly an overlap, but I didn't see it as that much of an overlap, honestly. . . . Jack was really much more of a hardcore ideologue, though what I liked about him was that he was a jokester and a movie nut.

"And Eliot Spitzer always had a fundamental sense about social justice. He had a mission, but he was tormented by different demons than Jack was. I think Jack felt he was impervious. Spitzer thought about his enemies. I don't think Jack gave any thought to them whatsoever."

And what of the fictional version of "Casino Jack"? Gibney smiles diplomatically. "Kevin Spacey is great," he says. "He's no Jack Abramoff."

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