Ben Affleck may have been battling his own demons, but he also impresses in his new Netflix action film, writes Ed Power
EVERY so often Ben Affleck pauses to pop another square of cinnamon nicotine gum into his mouth. It’s the only indication the actor has recently had addiction issues, having entered his third stint in rehab last August. Otherwise, the 46-year-old tanned, relaxed and healthy-looking as he sits down to discuss his new Netflix movie, Triple Frontier.
The film, an ensemble drama about former marines trying to steal a drug lord’s fortune, is the latest staging post in Netflix’s attempt to become a force in movies. It arrives amid controversy, with the Hollywood establishment aghast at how close the Netflix-backed Roma came to winning best picture at the Oscars. Steven Spielberg is even now reportedly campaigning to have movies released on streaming services shunted off to the Emmys.
“It’s important to distill this discussion,” says Affleck. “A part of it has to do with movie awards. That’s not something I’m focused on. When you do a movie, it’s who you get an opportunity to work with [that is the draw]. The other stuff is more after the fact. How does it get distributed… what cities are they putting it into? It gets very technical. I’m only smart enough to focus on my job…You can get very byzantine.”
Oscar Isaac, who stars alongside Affleck, notes one major difference between Triple Frontier and a studio picture. There is less interference from above. “The whole first 20 minutes are in Spanish. I’m not certain that would have been a possibility had it been a theatrical release.”
Triple Frontier is an enjoyable, if flawed, heist caper. But the behind the scenes story is even more epic. The film has been in development since 2010, when Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks were to star and Kathryn Bigelow to direct. Later, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were rumoured to be coming on board. But then, weeks before the cameras were set to roll, Paramount pulled the plug. Enter Netflix, which acquired the project. Shooting began in March — months before Affleck returned to rehab. He has since spoken out about his alcoholism, describing it as something about which he must be eternally vigilant.
“I think a lot of people look at addiction and say, ‘It’s over, he did it. It’s like cancer, he’s cured. He’s done.’ But it is a lifelong battle for you,” he told America’s The Today Show. “Yeah, I mean, some people are sort of uncomfortable. It doesn’t really bother me to talk about alcoholism and being an alcoholic. It’s part of my life, something that I deal with. It doesn’t have to subsume my whole identity and be everything, but it’s something you have to work at.”
It has been a challenging spell for Affleck, who seemed to have bounced back when winning an Oscar for Argo in 2012. But his marriage to Jennifer Garner broke up in 2015 and they divorced in 2017. And there was a fan backlash against his casting as Batman, though he brought an agreeable curmudgeonliness to his portrayal of an older superhero (he has since announced he is hanging up his bat-cape).
Affleck’s character in Triple Frontier has his demons too. He plays a military veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life. When we make his acquaintance, he is eking a living an estate agent. His wife has left him, he chugs beer while dropping his eye-rolling teenage daughter to school. His life is a mess.
Which is why he allows himself to be sucked back for the stereotypical last big payday. He agrees to lend his expertise to an old military pal, portrayed by Star Wars’ star Isaac. They set off to raid a drug lord’s cash stash and are ultimately bogged down in a very lively rumble in the jungle. Also along for the ride are their old army compadres portrayed by Pedro Pascal, Charlie Hunnam, and Garrett Hedlund.
“The burden on [returning army veterans] is huge,” says Isaac. “In the movie, some of the characters]are suffering at least one or two catastrophic injures that are near debilitating. They come back and are expected to go right into civilian life. They’re at a vulnerable place in their lives. Which is why this idea of a heist, something against their personal or ethical or moral code… becomes a possibility.”
Affleck agrees: “Imagine going from a world where you’re the best of the best — you continue to excel, are part of more and more elite segments of your profession. And then, at 40, you’re told to start over, develop new skills, try to jury-rig the skills you do have. One can imagine that might be quite difficult. Being excellent in this particular field might not translate to another. What does that do to a person who was part of the elite. I would imagine that would be a significant challenge.”
Triple Frontier is also a comment on modern masculinity. Affleck’s character is tempted back for one final payday in part at least because he feels emasculated by not being able to provide for his family.
“They do this thing that is very reliant on their masculinity,” says Oscar Isaac. “When that goes away, they’re feeling a bit of an existential crisis.”
“If you’re inclined to look and draw parallels in a meta way…it asks questions about how these soldiers feel their skills are being obviated and are less relevant,” says Affleck. “There are men who look at a changing society and feel challenged in a similar way. They feel less relevant… These are questions that challenge one’s sense of self.”
The crunch point comes an hour in when Affleck’s marine surrenders to greed and places the entire mission in jeopardy.
“It is a parable about temptation,” says the actor. “It is very literally a movie about greed and how these things that challenge our value systems can corrupt us. Through the movie you’re brought along with the characters. They have a point at the start. You find that the rationalising of moral equivocations leads you often times to a very unpleasant place.”
Triple Frontier is released on Netflix tomorrow (Wednesday, March 13)