In a moment of Netflix-derived serendipity, I had recent movies from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon show up at my house on the same day. I will stress that this was not by design, as I have no particular pre-existing attachment to either as an actor. I know them, respectively, as the one guy who's amiable enough in Kevin Smith movies and has some sort of tabloid-sustaining relationship with the cute Puerto Rican girl with the nice booty, and the one guy who looks about 14 and was Mr. Winona Ryder or something for a while.
I saw Ben Affleck in the Sum of All Fears, a truly regrettable chunk of post-Cold War technoporn based on the right-wing stroke book by Tom Clancy. It was a mess on so many levels I'm not even sure where to begin. Since its true that all works of fiction depend, at a certain level, on the willing suspension of disbelief, beginning the story with a howler of an anachronism seems to be an unwise decision. The built-in audience for The Sum of All Fears, presumably, is the one that watched Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford play the role of CIA analyst Jack Ryan in the Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear And Present Danger. When this audience last saw the Jack Ryan character on screen in 1994, he was a middle-aged, high-level spook with a wife and family that had featured prominently in his on-screen exploits. the Sum of All Fears features a junior-level CIA-analyst, at least 20 years younger than he was 8 years ago, who's single and dating a young doctor. This is never acknowledged. I've never read the novel the movie's based on (I mean, really...) so I can only guess that the severe telescoping of plot points in the movie's first two acts is just the result of a less than successful attempt to shoehorn all of the novel's action beats into way too little screen time, but the last act's catastrophic jumble of locations and dangling plot points makes the first two thirds feel like a Merchant-Ivory film. I still don't know if Affleck can carry a picture, since this one was such a mess he never got the chance.
Matt Damon has a much better time of things in the Bourne Identity. This film, too, was based on a successful spy novel, this one written at the zenith of the Cold War. The director and screenwriters remembered the first tenet of adaptation -- that their mission is to create an entertaining film, not to replicate a book; that the interplay of light and shadow across a talented performer's face can be far more successful and dramatic than endless literal exposition copied from a novel's pages and filmed artlessly. Damon proves to be the ideal sort of actor to carry this sort of role. He's not a showy actor, he's more of a "reactor" who gets more mileage out of his silences than his line readings. He's the ideal sort of performer to play the role of a character who's literally rediscovering his identity as the film progresses, and he carries the action scenes credibly. In a sense, it's the excess of backstory that dooms the Sum of All Fears from the very start, while Damon's Jason Bourne works from the opposite extreme. Franka Potente (I will confess a crush) is pitch perfect as his love interest and partner in flight. In addition, the film looks wonderful, making great use of chilly locations in the Czech Republic (standing in for Zurich) and France. Though it's a studio film, at no point does it ever feel particularly "Hollywood."
If I had a point, I suppose it would be that the problem with culture of celebrity endoscopy we live in now is that the multi-tentacled publicity monster (and his many many teeth) can scare you away from a given work of entertainment or the artists behind it quite independently of its/their own merits. I never saw Good Will Hunting, by the time I got an opportunity it had crossed some kind of hype event horizon and the very idea of watching it had become quite distasteful. So GWH may truly be great, and I'll never know.
The result of flattening high-mindedness out.