Unlike most celebrities, Affleck not only had a firm grasp of where he'd gone and what he'd seen but understood his true value as a spokesman, saying that instead of button-holing congressmen, he was trying to influence the electorate, "a special interest group to whom the politicians have no choice but to listen." Most people who hear Affleck talk come away impressed. As John Powers recently wrote in Los Angeles magazine, when Affleck was interviewed during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, "his analysis was every bit as penetrating as that of the New York Times' David Brooks."
It's telling that Morgan Freeman says he took a part in "Gone Baby Gone" not just because he liked the script, but because he enjoyed Affleck's company. "I just really like Ben," Freeman explains. "I know what he's gone through, but he's really come out the other side glowing. He's always been a guy with a good head on his shoulders, so when he had a good story to tell, I was eager to be a part of it."
Affleck is so well-studied that -- irony of all ironies -- he offers what is perhaps the most trenchant analysis of how he became a media target. "The first half of the media cycle was fascination; the second half of the cycle was rejection," he says. "What I never realized was that the public doesn't end up blaming the magazines that write every insane, untrue story -- fanning them, marketing them and foisting them unceasingly on [people] who began feeling as though they couldn't escape it. So they blame the subjects of the story, who they believe are pushing themselves in their face all the time, rather than the manufacturers."
Affleck sighs. "That turned out to be me, even though by that point I wasn't pushing anything. I was hiding in the basement."
Affleck isn't trying to let himself off the hook. He took pains to say that when it came to his career choices, "only the mistakes are mine." What seems different about his new film is that, as a director, not an actor, he has found a subject close to his soul. When he talks about his work to help fund AIDS programs in Africa or bemoans what he says is America's use of torture in the war on terror, he begins to resemble the obsessive investigator in "Gone Baby Gone." Like Dennis Lehane, Affleck is a moralist, someone who can agonize over the wrongs in the world long into the night.
As he attempts a new chapter in his career, he is determined to avoid trying to please people. His mistakes, as he sees it, were "basing decisions on what I imagined others might think versus my own personal sense of direction, the simple gut level, 'Do I think this is a good idea?' "
His leap into filmmaking, which led to "Gone Baby Gone," is a way of making a choice on its own merits and living with it. It's a choice very much like the one that haunts many of the characters in his movie, who are tormented by the wrenching moral decisions they have to confront in a very imperfect world.
"There's a line in our script that we had to cut out of the film that I really love, because it reminded me how hard it is to do what's right, especially when it forces you to confront things about yourself that you don't always want to see," Affleck says. "But it says what matters: 'If the right thing were easy, everyone would do it.' "