During a point in his career when he was the punchline of jokes, Ben Affleck turned his career and public perception around when he showed audiences that he had the prowess to be a director. The actor was commonly stained with a reputation as an empty-headed leading man, especially in comparison to his close friend and frequent collaborator, Matt Damon.
However, in the last 15 years, Affleck has demonstrated a keen understanding of storytelling and genre construction with his direction. His five films are pleasurable, undeniably solid middle-brow entertainment, with a proficient execution of visual language, screen performances, and employment of familiar genres and stories.
5. Live by Night (2016)
For his follow-up to winning Best Picture, Ben Affleck sought to think outside the box and sink his teeth into something more ambitious. In another adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, Live by Night had the potential to be an artistic ascension for the director, even more so than his critically acclaimed fare of the past. With a continued influence from Michael Mann and a touch of Martin Scorsese and classic Warner Bros gangster films, the film should have been great. Unfortunately, it is hardly even passable, certifying it as Affleck’s only miss of his directorial career. The critical disappointment and financial calamity of the film likely left the star to reconsider the future of his career, especially in the midst of a rapidly changing industry.
In Live by Night, Affleck plays a Boston bootlegger, Joe Coughlin, who migrates to Florida to pursue the life of a gangster and faces off against the Ku Klux Klan and other competitors. Affleck’s directorial filmography to this point was driven by the collection of captivating supporting performances, notably the Oscar-nominated work of Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, and Alan Arkin. This film is short on spark-plug performances, and the lack of them startlingly highlights Affleck’s miscasting in the part of Joe Coughlin. Numerous actors could have killed it, including his closest collaborators such as Matt Damon and his brother Casey, but Ben gives some of his flattest work as a screen presence.
Tonally, the film is wildly disjointed. Affleck is unsure whether to lean into the pulpy nature of the source material or elevate it into a prestigious treatment of the rise and fall in America. Under strong directing and sturdy writing, this conflict could work in conjunction, but instead, Affleck’s film operates on a soggy middle ground that fails to satisfy any sentiment of a viewing experience. To put it short, Live by Night needed to be either smarter or dumber–in the sense of adhering to popcorn entertainment.
Under the guidance of accomplished cinematographer Robert Richardson, Live by Night is visually sharp, making the Boston and Tampa locations lively. In this case, Affleck’s vision is quite focused. Additionally, the climactic set piece in which Coughlin’s crew engages in a shootout with the rival gang is exquisitely staged and crafted. Affleck’s seamless direction in this scene will make unsuspecting viewers think he is a seasoned action filmmaker. Other than these sporadic bright spots, the film does not work on a cohesive level. Credit to Affleck for the ambition, as this was the kind of film that most audiences would love to embrace, but Live by Night was a redundancy of the director’s tastes on a bloated scale.
4. Air (2023)
Recently released to theaters in April 2023, Air is a classical return to the form of a brand of cinema that was threatened to be lost to time amid the congestion of franchise installments. A quintessential dad movie upon arrival, the film seemed destined to fade into streaming obscurity, but recent studio enlightenment to put films back in theaters allowed Air to capture an ignored audience. Ben Affleck’s direction and screen presence was a favorable return to charming entertainment after spending years trapped in the DC universe.
Based on a true story, Air tracks Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) and Nike’s quest to sign an endorsement deal with Michael Jordan. The film operates as a glorified TV movie, but that should not discredit Affleck’s ability to keep the film engaging and running at a healthy pace. Visually, the film is nothing to ride home about, but his sense of where to place the camera emphasizes the sporadic moments of humor and dramatic tension. While backhanding to a degree, Air is best to be enjoyed when not thinking too hard about the ideology of its text.
The film likes to position itself as an inspiring underdog story–a fraught proposition considering the protagonist is a multi-billion dollar corporation. If there is anything that has gotten stale in popular media, it would be the romanticism and glorification of ‘80s culture. Problems arise when Affleck succumbs to cheap needle drops and an oversimplification of the story at hand.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Air is more interested in executing a compelling adult office drama about people who are good at their jobs rather than a deep examination of the politics of corporate America. It is relieving knowing that these kinds of movies can still be resonant. Watching captivating screen presences in Damon, Affleck, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, and Chris Tucker argue over revenue and shoe designs. Viola Davis, who is quite overqualified to play a supporting role as Jordan’s mother, kills it, per usual. Every actor is dialed in and having a blast.
Despite the eye-roll-worthy ‘80s nostalgia that is flooded in the film’s imagery and soundtrack, there is enough winking from Affleck’s direction to make it signal that the film is in on the joke. In fact, the period setting would vastly set this apart from the same film set in contemporary times. Watching business executives yell over landline phones and documenting their work with paper is far more cinematic than communicating via digital technology. Affleck has the simple touches as a director to elevate this rudimentary docu-drama into a potential favorite in the rewatchable club.