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ROTTENTOMATOES.COM AHEAD OF THE REST Ben Affleck stands out in a crowd with his unexpected directing chops and acting skills.
AHEAD OF THE REST Ben Affleck stands out in a crowd with his unexpected directing chops and acting skills.
With the release of Ben Affleck’s new movie, Argo, the much-maligned star has finally overtaken his friend and former writing partner Matt Damon with an Oscar-worthy creation all his own.

For the past 15 years, there has been no cinematic duo quite like Affleck and Damon. Friends since childhood, the pair took roles both together (School Ties) and apart (a few Kevin Smith films for Affleck, Courage Under Fire for Damon) before winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1997 for Good Will Hunting. Likeable, good-looking and talented, the duo seemed to have a bright future.

Fast forward to 2004. Damon was starring in two different critically acclaimed movie franchises: the intense, serious Bourne series and the relaxed, fun Ocean’s films. Affleck, however, seemed to be taking the celebrity route. His romance and subsequent breakup with Jennifer Lopez may have attracted tabloid attention, but the movies released immediately after that relationship — Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Surviving Christmas and Jersey Girl — were uniformly terrible and, unlike the almost-as-bad Michael Bay movies he made post-Hunting, uniformly box-office flops. While Damon was on the way up, his friend became a walking punch line.

But a funny thing happened on his way to the bottom: Affleck stepped out of the limelight and began directing. His first movie, Gone Baby Gone, was met with unexpected critical acclaim not just for Amy Ryan’s outstanding, Oscar-nominated performance, but also for the unexpected adeptness Affleck had for pacing in the thriller genre. For a first-time director, he exuded a remarkable amount of confidence. His next picture, The Town, was a thriller on a larger scale, with flashier set pieces, action-filled scenes and — possibly because of this — a different sort of intensity than his previous film. Despite also being a crime movie that takes place in Boston, The Town is an altogether different type of thriller than Gone Baby Gone, but one that Affleck pulled off just as successfully. The Town also reaffirmed Affleck’s strength as an actor, with the director holding his own against a talented cast. The movie ended up making almost $100 million, a respectable amount for an R-rated picture. Perhaps, people started thinking, behind the camera is where Affleck belonged all along.

His newest film Argo, which he directs and stars in, synthesizes the best parts of his two previous films into an Academy Award-worthy movie. The first in Affleck’s oeuvre to be set outside of Boston, Argo tells the story of a bold CIA mission to extract six would-be hostages from 1970s Iran by having them pose as a Canadian film crew “filming” the titular movie.

Affleck stars as Tony Mendez, the CIA extraction expert in charge of the mission who, in seemingly every frame, is consoling himself with tobacco and alcohol to nurse his guilt about being unable to spend time with his son. This subplot is done with little fanfare, a strong, restrained decision that pushes the main story to the forefront while adding depth to Affleck’s character — and a welcome departure from the ineffective romances of The Town.

As a director, Affleck uses close-up reaction shots more than ever in Argo, and these largely wordless reactions are characteristic of the bottled-up culture of the CIA and make the occasional outpourings of emotion — most notably from Bryan Cranston as Mendez’s boss — that much more effective.

The crowded scenes in Tehran are deftly handled despite their size, and Affleck makes the right choice in foregoing shootouts and other visceral set pieces for tense, slow-burning journeys through the dangerous Iranian streets and bureaucracy; the rescued aren’t spies, after all, they’re diplomats.

The ensemble cast is strong, with the standouts being the aforementioned Cranston and Alan Arkin, who plays the mega-producer recruited to add legitimacy to the fake movie and who will likely garner an Oscar nomination. He and John Goodman, who plays a makeup artist with major Hollywood contacts, do a fantastic job in the unexpectedly humorous Los Angeles-set scenes. The decision to play these scenes for laughs underscores the apparent ludicrousness of the plan and shows how different the worlds of international relations and the movies really are.

Damon is having a quiet year, with his only role being in the upcoming Promised Land. Oddly enough, that film reunites Damon with Hunting director Gus Van Sant, and Damon is co-writing the script, only his second since his Oscar win. In a year where Damon seems to be returning to the past, it only makes sense for Affleck to do the same. However, he could be doing so in a different way: in a return to the Oscar podium.

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