by Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
TORONTO -- Most of us have refreshed a computer screen.
Or, at the very least, refreshed the stale air in a room.
Ben Affleck, however, has managed to refresh his entire career.
Opening today is a cinematic testament to Affleck's powers of redemption: Argo. Set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, the fact-based thriller recounts how the CIA and the movie industry formed an unlikely partnership to secretly rescue six American diplomats hiding out in the Canadian ambassador's home in Tehran. Their plan? Have the refugees pose as the film crew of a cheesy sci-fi adventure titled Argo.
New York magazine critic David Edelstein is hardly alone when he raves: "Argo is a marvel of cunning, an irresistible blend of cool realism and Hollywood hokum."
The main beneficiary of the abundant praise and awards-season buzz that has been heaped upon Argo ever since it premiered at film festivals is star, producer and director Affleck, whose two other efforts behind the camera -- 2007's Gone Baby Gone and 2010'sThe Town, both gritty crime dramas -- also drew critical hurrahs.
Relevance factors in, given recent events at the Libyan embassy as well as ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. Then there is the fun of revisiting dreary late- '70s fashions, stuck in the gap between disco glam and preppy chic. Were eyeglass lenses really billboard-size, mustaches ever so Smokey and the Bandit and shirt collars so ridiculously expansive?
But the positive reception also is a reflection of Affleck's innate skill at telling an original adult-oriented story -- a rarity these days -- that veers from procedural details to taut action to humorous satire before building to armrest-gripping climax. Many prognosticators wouldn't be too taken aback if Affleck overtakes the likes of Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and joins other dreamboats-turned-serious-artists Robert Redford and Warren Beatty as an Oscar-winning filmmaker.
"I paid off a lot of people," says Affleck, 40, showing off his still-boyish smile.
At that point, Affleck was mostly attracting attention as half of the gossip-obsessed era's first portmanteau super-couple, Bennifer, after he and pop diva Jennifer Lopez were engaged in 2002. The relationship turned into a running gag on late-night talk shows when their reviled big-screen pairing in 2003's Gigli (rhymes with "really") bombed with such aplomb that it was worthy of a Michael Bay-orchestrated disaster flick.
As for the onetime Sexiest Man Alive's appeal as a solo actor, all the Febreze in the world couldn't mask the stink after a string of subpar efforts. Not even a surprisingly sensitive portrait of troubled TV Superman George Reeves in 2006's Hollywoodland could restore his glow.
Affleck, who checked himself into rehab in 2001 when his partying got out of hand, instinctually knew to take a break from the overheated limelight,
"I said, 'Look, I'm not going to be a part of this. This is not how my life gets defined,'" he says. "I decided I wasn't going to work in front of the camera for a while."
Instead, the square-jawed action hero from Armageddon and The Sum of All Fears focused on becoming a director. "I had been waiting for the opportunity for a long time," says Affleck, who in 2005 ended up marrying a more down-to-earth Jennifer -- Garner, his love interest in the 2003 comic-book adventure Daredevil and mother of his three children.
"Matt and I considered co-directing Good Will Hunting,'' he says. "I directed some shorts when I was really young," including the as-bad-as-it-sounds I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney. "But after Good Will Hunting, I had a lot of opportunities as an actor and it ended up on the back burner."
One surefire laugh-getter in Argo is a putdown delivered with genial gusto by John Goodman as real-life makeup artist John Chambers, who assisted Affleck's CIA operative Tony Mendez in pulling off the ruse that Argo was an actual production. When Mendez worries that the diplomats might not be able to be convincing as a movie team, Chambers retorts, "You can teach a rhesus monkey how to be a director in a day."
Affleck, who says it's his favorite line, readily acknowledges, "I'm not quite as quick as a rhesus monkey." In fact, he was terrified initially at the prospect of making Gone Baby Gone. But he also was lucky enough that then-Disney chairman Richard Cook took a chance on his Pearl Harbor star, using the noirish mystery about a kidnapped youngster to rebrand the old Miramax label.
Affleck kept behind the camera and chose his younger brother Casey as the lead with sturdy backup from Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris.
One strength quickly became apparent. Affleck had a knack for assembling terrific casts and encouraging superior performances. Amy Ryan earned her first Oscar nomination as Gone Baby Gone's monstrous mother whose daughter goes missing. Jeremy Renner also was in the running for a gold trophy as Affleck's hotheaded bank-heist buddy in 2010's The Town.
Little wonder Argo attracted such pros as Goodman, 60, and Alan Arkin, 78,who plays producer Lester Siegel, a composite character with the take-no-prisoners bluster of legendary studio moguls of yore. He has one demand before joining the cause: "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit."
Says Arkin, "I'd never met Ben, but I had seen his other films. They were wonderfully mature films. But this one for me puts him in a league of his own."
Adds Goodman, "It's so richly detailed and it moves like gangbusters. He had great command of the technical aspects as well. Somebody who knows that much about camera angles and lighting and where to put people usually isn't as good with actors as he is."
As for having Affleck as a boss, Arkin says, "He is surprisingly warm and effusive and meticulous. He knows exactly what he wants. He has a complete command of every aspect of the film and, since I am saying all these things about him, I hope to God he hires me again."
Scoot McNairy, 32, whose nerve-wracked diplomat Joe Stafford must pretend to be a producer, actually worked with Affleck before -- not that his director remembered. "It was a commercial for Axe deodorant that was shot in L.A. but was shown in Europe."
McNairy was duly impressed by Affleck's ability to inspire actors. "He allowed us freedom to be more natural. Sometimes he would ask us to improvise or say whatever we wanted to say. There is a certain level of trust you hand over when you know someone has great taste and makes great movies. I stretched my neck a little further and put myself out there."
Another actor who had to put his trust in Affleck: George Clooney, whose company helped produce Argo. A fellow hybrid talent who has smoothly made the transition to director with movies like Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March, he shared some insight with Affleck.
"Clooney once said to me, 'People blame or credit actors with how the movies are. But really it's a director's medium. It's their credit or blame.' But the actors often get either an undue amount of praise or criticism, and I think I sort of knew that. But he crystallized it in such a smart way."
Affleck plans to continue to perform in other people's films. He appears in Terrence Malick's romantic reverie To the Wonder (no U.S. release date yet) and plays what he describes as the Gordon Gekko of Internet gambling in Runner, Runner next year.
However, Affleck seems more excited by the projects lined up under his and Damon's Warner Bros.-based production banner, Pearl Street Films. They include a couple of directing jobs for him: A remake of Tell No One, a 2006 French thriller and a sleeper hit in this country about a doctor who discovers his long-dead wife might be alive. Damon would take the lead in a biopic about Whitey Bulger, the Boston-based Irish mob boss who was the basis for Jack Nicholson's gangster in The Departed.
But Affleck knows himself well enough to just say no to directing the movie version of Justice League, DC Comics' answer to The Avengers.
"I like comic-book movies myself," he says. "They are incredibly flashy and effective in terms of 3-D effects. But right now, that's not what I'm interested in doing. I'm interested in making movies that are tonally like I've been doing. And $300 million -- that is just too much responsibility for me. I'd be tempted to take the budget and go to Mexico."