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Ben Affleck Takes a Big Leap Forward as a Director with Live by Night

Last night, Ben Affleck showed Live By Night (another movie under strict embargo) to a few assembled critics. It has been screened around town this week, as reported by Kris Tapley and Steve Pond. Both writers say the film is strong on techs — especially production design and costumes — but I felt that it was also strong on writing, directing, and acting, with Sienna Miller as a particular standout.

Okay, you have to be a person who loves mob and gangster movies. I happen to be one of those. Give me a choice of watching that kind of movie and an intimate character drama I’m going to go for the mob movie every time. I’m trying to write about this without writing about it but just to say if you were a fan of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, then Affleck is again in that kind of territory here, and not so much in Argo territory. I’ve been a fan of his directing for a while now — even if I did ride Argo pretty hard. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I thought he was so much better than that movie, as entertaining as it is.

At any rate, Live by Night is meticulously directed, with every shot carefully considered and mapped out beforehand. That makes it right off the bat my kind of movie. Look, the bottom line is that Affleck is a talented director. He’s even a better director than he is an actor and he’s a good actor. Whatever that thing is that some people have behind the camera he has it. And this film, I think, showcases that.

But it’s safe to assume, without the critics reviews yet, that Live by Night will be strong across the tech categories. Like Fences, Hell or High Water and Hidden Figures, and Moonlight — Live by Night has a particular resonance in today’s climate of grief and despair at the hands of a corrupt and evil far right that just orchestrated a coup. Even Affleck acknowledged at the Q&A that the film seemed to play much more strongly into the post-Trump election aftershock than he had anticipated, and if he had made it today he would have dialed that back a bit. For me, it is a reminder of why we have art and especially why we have movies. Harder to argue for escaping into them with Obama in the White House but now? There is no better escape.

I don’t know where this film will land. I really want to see it again before I review it but I would not be surprised if it edged into some of the top-tier categories. Sienna Miller in supporting, Affleck for adapted screenplay and possibly director. Is it too much of a downer to earn a Best Picture nomination with the preferential ballot? Possibly. But there are other downers headed into the race, too, and we have no idea right now whether Academy members will be reaching for feelgood or feelbad. By the way, just to be clear, I personally did not think Live by Night was a downer. To me, it’s one of those pulpy noirish gangster films that are fun to sink into for a couple of hours. But that’s just me.

This is a long embargo so I don’t know how I’ll be able to not talk about the movie. It seems kind of clear that Affleck is sort of resisting the circus that is the awards race — and believe me, I understand why. Sometimes you just want to make a good movie and have people see it. You don’t necessarily want to be part of the dog and pony show that goes along with it. Unfortunately, the awards race is often one of the few ways movies can build the kind of buzz needed to reach audiences in the first place. Still, the Argo thing would have likely soured anyone on the run up to the Oscars.

Either way, what I saw last night and what I’ve seen in the few films he’s made is the work of a talented, skilled director and I hope that he is encouraged, not discouraged, from making more films.

I hope this doesn’t break any kind of embargo…