I’ve always liked Ben Affleck more than most. I’ve never had a problem with his acting (more his choice of roles once he got famous), and in fact found him nomination worthy in a slew of films, including ‘Chasing Amy’, ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘Jersey Girl’, ‘Hollywoodland’, ‘The Town’, and ‘The Company Men’. Not only have I enjoyed his acting, I think that his 2 directorial projects and 3 scripts have all been some of the very best movies of their years. I never got the Affleck hatred, though I freely admit that starring in a crappy movie called ‘Paycheck’ at the height of his “paycheck acting” days was less than a wise choice. He’s got his limits as an actor, but in the right role he’s still incredibly good. As of late, a lot of people have taken to comparing Affleck to Clint Eastwood, in terms of an actor finding his footing as a director. I’ve found it to be an apt comparison, but I’m going to be taking it one farther here. I actually believe that when Affleck’s career comes to a conclusion you’ll be able to look at his career as a director and
compare it favorably to Eastwood’s. Strong words, I know, but hear (or read) me out.
First up, lets compare the two a bit. Both are actors with limitations, but still actors who excel in the right role. For Affleck, it’s his quieter, more contemplative roles. If you look at his performances in ‘Chasing Amy’, ‘Good Will Hunting’, and ‘Hollywoodland’, those are unforgettable turns. For Eastwood, he did his best early on as Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name. Killing machines, that’s what Eastwood was perfect for. His quieter roles were more hit or miss. Both seemed somewhat unsatisfied with what they were being offered in front of the camera and took to moving behind the camera to fuel their creativity. For Eastwood, he started out with a nice little thriller called ‘Play Misty for Me’ (ironically, Ben Affleck briefly considered remaking this as his directorial debut…another similarity to note). He then stayed within his comfort zone with ‘High Plains Drifter’, and slowly gained his footing with middling projects like ‘Breezy’, ‘The Eiger Sanction’, ‘The Gauntlet’, and others both noteworthy (like ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’) and not (‘Firefox’). He’d even revisit his Dirty Harry character, but he never really became “Clint Eastwood the Director” until the 90’s when he made ‘Unforgiven’. His newfound praise let to some less than stellar outings (such as ‘True Crime’, ‘Space Cowboys’, and ‘Blood Work’), but once he made ‘Mystic River’, he was solidly an A list director. Since then, he’s had highs (‘Million Dollar Baby’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’), lows (‘Gran Torino’ and
‘Hereafter’, though I know plenty of people dig on Gran Torino), and things in between (‘Flags of Our Fathers’, ‘Changeling’, and ‘Invictus’). What we see is that Eastwood is capable of some borderline masterpieces, but he mixes
them in with lots of forgettable and good but not great fare.
As for Affleck, his directorial resume is far shorter, but for my money, it’s a more sterling record. He started off by shocking quite a few people with the raw power and emotional intensity of ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and then upped the ante with the downright incredible crime drama ‘The Town’. What makes these films so unique is that they’re based on novels that are only decent, and Affleck improves them with his co-writers and then directs the hell out of them. He’s made as many borderline masterpieces as Eastwood, but without any of the filler or wait in between. Yes, I’m speculating, but I think the future is brighter for Affleck than Eastwood. A look at their upcoming projects confirms this for me.
While it’s smart to look at Eastwood’s upcoming Hoover biopic ‘J. Edgar’ as a film with great potential, his project after that appears to be yet another remake of ‘A Star Is Born’. This makes me think we could be headed into another downturn for Eastwood’s oeuvre. For me, it’s been since ‘Million Dollar Baby‘ that I last fully embraced one of his movies. There tend to be too many flaws (usually at the scripting stage) that frustrate me. This is what makes Affleck’s work stand out to me, as he has a hand in writing the projects. Affleck’s next film is going to be the very baity ‘Argo’, which is based on a terrific article about how a fake movie project was set up by the CIA to get hostages out of Iran. The casting over the last few weeks has been superb, and hints at yet another strong outing by Affleck. He’s also been interested in the wife-swapping baseball movie ‘The Trade‘ and an adaptation of the wonderful time travel novel ‘Replay‘ that’s been in the works for almost 2 decades. While Eastwood sometimes appears to take on projects that
are less than phenomenal at the premise stage, Affleck seems to be seeking out interesting work as he grows as a filmmaker, and knowing how well he can improve a plot with his writing, I’m inclined to think he’s only going to get better.
Ironically, both directors share what seems to be a great relationship with actors, giving their films strong performances. The difference for me is that while Eastwood stretches his comfort zone unnecessarily at times (‘The Bridges of Madison County‘ anyone?), Affleck stays in his zone and throws us wonderful curveballs. I’d be perfectly content if Affleck became the master of Boston set films. Both actors were unhappy with being boxed in as actors, and as directors they’ve looked to come to grips with that in different ways.
Another similarity is that they get some of their best work out of themselves. I never found Eastwood better than as a boxing trainer in ‘Million Dollar Baby‘ (my favorite film of his), and aside from his hungry young turn in Kevin Smith’s
‘Chasing Amy‘ (full disclosure: my second favorite film of all time), his best performance came for himself last year as a bank robber in ‘The Town’. They seem to know themselves incredibly well, and it shows. In terms of acting, they should trust themselves. Their main difference is that as directors, one has a longer yet more spotty resume.
The argument I made at the start is that Affleck’s eventual filmography will be held in a higher regard than Eastwood’s, and I think if ‘Argo’ is the Oscar player it could be, he might already be well on his way. It’s just a projection, but when I look at Ben Affleck, I see the next Clint Eastwood, just a more advanced facsimile, and one with much more potential. I could be wrong, but it’s going to be fun to find out one way or another. I don’t mean to disparage Eastwood or anything, I just see him as a more limited director than Affleck. Perhaps I put more emphasis than I should on his ability to help his projects with his writing, but that’s just me.
My final point is this…look at their different interpretations of Dennis Lehane. Eastwood adapted ‘Mystic River’, a very good but overly melodramatic crime story. He wasn’t able to balance the pathos out, letting the mood overtake the story, which had its charms. As for Affleck, he adapted ‘Gone Baby Gone’, a weaker novel, but one that became a better film. He was able to take that similar mood, and make it fit the profile of the film. He also was able to use Boston as a character, something Eastwood was unable to do. His film screamed “important” and “Oscar”, while Affleck let it just feel natural. This lent itself to a gut punch of an ending, something Eastwood bungled and almost shot himself in the foot with. There’s tragedy in both, but Affleck just handled everything better, for my money. Looking at that comparison, it helps me think I may be on to something with this theory of mine…but we shall see.
-What do you think of this argument? Am I crazy? Sound off and let me know!