In the last shot of Ben Affleck's "Argo" — relax, there are no spoilers here — the camera pans slowly along the shelves of toys in a young boy's bedroom. The year is 1980; the film spends most of its time on the true story of how a CIA operative named Tony Mendez (Affleck) used the faux production of a low-budget sci-fi picture as the cover to sneak a handful of American embassy workers out of an Iran in the midst of post-revolutionary upheaval.
But this bedroom sequence, no less important. When it arrives, notice the loving linger given every "Star Wars" and "Battlestar Galactica" action figure and half-remembered 1970s tchotchke.
Notice that the film is about the beauty of a well-told story, and how in the hands of a rich imagination, ephemera are raw tools. But also notice that Affleck — who just turned 40, has three kids, a wife (actress Jennifer Garner) and one of the most unlikely great-directing careers going — is putting away childhood things.
When we met for lunch recently in River North, it was hard not to notice the white streaks in his hair. Or that, as with many directors, he seems to have grown into a living embodiment of the movies he directs — serious and thoughtful, a little stony, but affable, entertaining and unpretentious, with a keen self-awareness.
Longtime students of history may struggle to place the little-known footnote at the heart of "Argo," but even the casual students of US Weekly will vouch: A decade ago, no one imagined we would find ourselves here. A decade ago Affleck was the star of "Pearl Harbor," a member of the ubiquitous Bennifer. Despite sharing an Academy Award for writing "Good Will Hunting" with his New England buddy Matt Damon, Affleck himself had become ephemeral. And then he directed "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007, a tiny, taut genre exercise in moral ambiguity and genuine dread. The film also was made with surprising confidence, which seemed less surprising when he followed it in 2010 with a terrific crime film, "The Town."
As a filmmaker, you could argue he has yet to falter but only gotten smarter and more ambitious with each new picture. Indeed, "Argo" (almost certainly an Oscar contender), probably will put to rest whatever backhanded compliments of surprise that his promise as a director still generates.
The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Q: Can you see your own progression as a director, or are you too close?
A: No, I see it. I've consciously taken on material that's a bit too much for me but not an overreach. The first movie, just about performances. "The Town," I learned how to work broader material, develop tension, direct bigger scenes, action sequences. "Argo," I experimented with film stock, widened the scope of my geography. It's a period movie, which is also a stretch but not outside my understanding. I would do a special-effects movie, maybe. I have nothing against that kind of thing. What Ridley Scott did with "Alien" and "Blade Runner" — I would love to try something like that, if it had the tone of what I'm making now.
Q: If you had started directing before you became tabloid fodder, while your acting career was going well, do you think the films you directed would have been different? Bigger? Less serious?
A: I don't know. That's a hard question. I was too young, probably. I hadn't been through enough pain. The movies might have been OK, but they would have played skin-deep. I didn't understand things then. I wouldn't have had enough to prove. But when I felt like I had something to prove? Then I got up early every morning and worked all day long. I didn't know if I had any more talent than anyone else directing, but I knew I could work hard at it, and so I did. I simply put in the time. I didn't do anything for two years but work on "Gone Baby Gone," and it was miserable and hard, but at the end? It is a good movie. I liked it very much. If it had been dismissed and deemed worthless, it would been definitely devastating. But that didn't happen.
Q: No, but you also started modestly ambitious — you didn't go for a bombastic, epic statement (in "Gone Baby Gone'). Which is, I think, somewhat the kind of film that people expect from an A-list actor-turned-director.
A: Right, and so the idea was to make something gritty, about the darkest parts of ourselves but also about recognizing your failings and paying the price for the things you've done. Not an easy sell. At the time I had gotten burned out on acting and was making (expletive), expensive, glossy (expletive). After 2000 or so, I started to realize I wanted to be doing something else. I didn't want to be in front of a camera. I was frustrated. I didn't think I would stop acting, but I didn't want to be seen. You have to understand — the intensity of being everywhere, on the cover of every magazine, it's corrosive to your career, to who you are. You're a rat in a maze. But also, my taste was going up against the taste of the directors I was working with. I would suggest doing something a different way, and to them I would become "that actor being difficult." The chance to direct was partly about that, about wanting to know if I knew what I was talking about.
Q: You weren't in "Gone Baby Gone," your name wasn't mentioned in the trailers or posters.
A: Absolutely, because otherwise it would never have been a movie I directed, just a movie I acted in and kind of directed. Not that it entirely matters: There is a perception that all actors make their movies. A lot of people assume you're responsible. George Clooney told me actors get all of the blame and all the credit.
Q: Still, even in "Argo," three films on, you're in the lead but quiet, arguably not even the focus. You probably could have given yourself one of those big moments where you explode and go —
A: "I want answers!"
A: Two reasons: Tony Mendez is taciturn. He does what a spy does. He fades into woodwork. But also that speaks to me wanting to make serious movies and not make myself heroic just because I made the movie.
Q: Were you ever sick of seeing yourself during the tabloid days?