My guess is that it wasn't just one thing. Not solely the fault of "Dear Ben" or bronzer or shiny outfits or animal cracker sex with Liv Tyler or the one millionth chucklehead to approach him and shout, "YOU WERE THE BOMB IN PHANTOMS, YO!" My guess is that after a while it all adds up and ovewhelms you. You realize that you're an object of transference for random strangers' weird ideas about their own lives. You participated in this, obviously, but you didn't realize going in how it would all spin into a giant Katamari ball of crazy. Then you lock yourself in your house, order in a lot from Yummy.com and watch The Conversation and Chinatown and Jeremiah Johnson over and over. Pick a new career, one where your face isn't necessarily going to be front and center all the time. Because even you are sick of your own face. That's my guess.
Whatever he did, it worked. Gone Baby Gone and The Town proved that Ben Affleck, The Director, ain't no joke. So this time out he decided to tackle an even bigger, more complicated narrative, a true story that very few people know about because it remained classified information until the Clinton administration, a story that could only happen in the 1970s. And you don't have to know anything about it going in, just don't be late for the prologue that sorts out the specifics. In 1979 as Iran lurched from westernized and despotic to theocratic and despotic, with American citizens caught in the shifting gears, revolutionaries seized the American Embassy in Tehran, taking workers hostage. But six people escaped, given secret shelter by the Canadian Embassy. CIA agent Tony Mendez's impossible, laughable, last-ditch plan to rescue them? Get Hollywood involved, stage a fake sci-fi movie called Argo ("A Cosmic Conflagration!" barked the equally fake preview ad), assign invented production staff identities to the hideaways and walk them through the airport on a plane bound for home. And it worked.
That's not a spoiler, by the way. It's public record. But how it worked is why you're going to see this massively entertaining thriller, a Great Escape-style adventure with enough suspense to fill a horror movie, more laughs than most comedies in current release and the kind of ugly-clothes period detail that should make other film attempts at re-creating that brownest of all decades ashamed of soft-peddling the heavy macrame truth. Weird combination, yes, but the absurdity of the premise is wisely acknowledged here; it's the kind of story nobody would buy if you just made it up. Meanwhile, besides establishing its director as a three-for-three success, the movie has a smaller, less expected outcome: a bit of mass-appeal rehab for the legacy of Jimmy Carter. He never made an embarrassing music video with an ex-girlfriend; his obstacles were considerably tougher. Under relentless pressure to deploy military action, he was perceived as a failure with a public approval rating even lower than the disgraced former President Richard Nixon. His unpopular peacemaking plan to bring everyone home without descending into war seems like a pretty good idea in retrospect.
As for the filmmaker, he may not be a great stylist yet. He might never become one. Film history might not remember him as an iconoclast with an instantly recognizable stamp like Godard or Kubrick or [your favorite auteur goes here]. He might simply stay the course as a reliable delivery system for really well-made, really entertaining, really mainstream movies for intelligent grown-ups. He's not showy, he's solid, and we're lucky he decided to get behind the camera on a regular basis.