The Two Kinds of Political Movie Stars: The Candidate and the Citizen

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With Argo and The Promised Land, friends Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are putting out their most political work yet. But only one of them seems to be eyeing higher office.

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When Good Will Hunting was released in 1997 and its wonder boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were catapulted into the upper ranks of Hollywood leading men, there was little indication of how politics would come to shape the two stars' careers. The populism of that film, in which a working-class genius defeats the oppressive intellectual elite, was always evident, but its politics have become even more visible with hindsight. As the pair have matured from touted Hollywood newcomers to respected and established filmmakers, they have gradually let their true political colors fly—and, of course, the color in question is blue.

Raised in the solidly Democratic state of Massachusetts, Affleck and Damon have supported liberal candidates throughout their careers, and pundits have sometimes wondered which of them might run for office someday. Damon in the press has been a solid "no" on the idea, even when Michael Moore publicly suggested he run for president, but Affleck has said that he may eventually become a candidate. Now, the two are putting out their most political films yet: the upcoming The Promised Land and the just-released Argo, respectively. These movies and their creators' careers show the two paths that exist for smart, politically engaged celebrities: that of the bold voice for change, and that of the guy who might actually win votes. In other words, we are far more likely to one day be saluting President Gigli than President Bourne.

Damon has been more outspoken, and his liberal politics have come into sharp relief during the Obama administration. He has criticized the president from the left and made a campaign video for the Working Families Party in New York, but he ascended to liberal folk hero when he angrily spoke out for teachers during an impromptu interview at a teachers' rally earlier this year. Affleck, on the other hand, has been a vocal supporter of President Obama, defending him unreservedly recently on The O'Reilly Factor, but has largely avoided speaking out on controversial issues.

Each actor has the charisma and intellect to move from film to politics, but Affleck has charted a more propitious course. After a tumultuous career as a movie-star idol, he turned to directing in 2007 and made two crime movies set in his hometown of Boston, Gone Baby Gone and The Town. There was barely a whiff of politics in these two films, but they effectively revived his public image, which was previously on life support due to a series of flops and his much-ridiculed engagement to Jennifer Lopez.

But Affleck's path back to respectability was expertly planned, as his directorial efforts aimed low and mined familiar subject matter. His first two films were set in the world of organized crime in South Boston, which was particularly en vogue after the recent successes of Mystic River and The Departed. More importantly, Affleck's films did not overreach; they were simple but sturdy exercises in genre, and they highlighted his ability to entertain the masses. The plan worked: Both Gone Baby Gone and The Town were praised by audiences and critics alike, and Affleck was back in the public's good graces.

With the release of his third directorial effort, the potential of Affleck's future political career becomes clearer. Affleck merges his love of Hollywood with his deep admiration for the American intelligence community in Argo, his telling of the true-to-life joint mission between the CIA and the film industry to exfiltrate six American diplomats who escaped the embassy in Tehran before hostages were taken in 1979. Argo is being called a political thriller, which makes it sound a lot edgier than it is. While a few pundits have speculated that the film's generosity toward former President Carter is meant to blunt Mitt Romney's attempts to compare Carter to Obama, at heart, Argo is a reverent, nonpartisan tale of American heroism. Tellingly, the film has been praised by news outlets as politically diverse as the Huffington Post and Fox News.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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