The Proper Appreciation of Matt Damon
Beyond the impressively 110° jawline, the old-school charming smile, and the not-overbearing-but-still-ripped physique, there lies an actor who we’ve all forgotten is a movie star. If you’ve ever heard him talk – outside of a role – there’s something about his halting speech and flitting eye movement that makes him endearing on a personal level, like you can have a beer with him. There’s a distinction by the way: McConnaughey, Hardy, and Fassbender are actors; Wahlberg, Pitt, and Cruise are stars. Damon’s in that intersection that only a few – Dicaprio and maybe Cooper – can lay claim to.
Name all of the signature Damon performances you can think of, and remember that all of them are without his man bun. Go on, I’ll kill time by reading over this headline. You probably got Goodwill Hunting (’97), Saving Private Ryan (’98), Bourne (’02, ’04, ’07), The Departed (’06) True Grit (’10), and The Martian (’15). You might have even gotten Invictus (’09), Contagion (’11), and Elysium (’13). And you probably still forgot he was in Interstellar (’14), Behind the Candelabra (’13) The Adjustment Bureau (’11), Green Zone (’10), and Ocean’s (’01, ’04, ’07) – yeah, you forgot a whole franchise! That’s an incredible eighteen year peak (1997-2015), which has no signs of slowing down with Bourne 5 (’16) only a few months away. That eclipses Will Smith’s peak (Fresh Prince height in ’92 – Seven Pounds in ’08, followed by an Eminem-esque hiatus from the big screen) and Clooney’s (Batman in ’97 – Gravity in ’13 after which he got married). It rivals Dicaprio’s peak (over the same years, from Titanic to Revenant), Denzel’s (from Malcolm X in ‘92 – Unstoppable in ‘10, and don’t tell me Flight was entertaining), and trailing Hanks (Gump in 1994 – Captain Phillips in 2013).
Some actors – even those with talent – end up being defined by bad performances, or even normal performances in terrible movies. I was surprised to see Cuba Gooding Jr. in Empire, until I realized that wasn’t him and he was murdered by that 2002 horror Boat Trip. The only reason that Affleck took on Batman is to make everyone forget that he was in Daredevil. Will Smith is still recovering from the seemingly mortal head wound he suffered in After Earth, which is probably why he was talking all weird in Concussion. Damon’s had two forgettable performances – Hereafter & Eurotrip, and enjoyable starring performances in three bad movies (Promised Land, The Brothers Grimm, The Monuments Men). Even Kobe’s missed the playoffs four times in 20 years. Bradley Cooper kept agreeing to do Hangover movies, Depp will continue to agree to work for Tim Burton, and Daniel Day-Lewis only wakes up from a coma every half-decade to pick out a really good role.
Take any given year in the last decade, in the post-Departed era, and switch in Damon for the best actor that year. Doesn’t he pull off Benjamin Button (2007) and Inglorious Basterds (2008) better than Brad Pitt? We all know he can sub in for Jeremy Renner (see: Bourne) in something like The Hurt Locker (2009). He could have even taken the part of the tiger in Life of Pi, which for some reason got Ang Lee a best use of green-screen award (or was it best director – I can’t remember). It goes on – with Coop in American Sniper or American Hustle, Clooney in Descendants, Franco in 127 Hours, and Wahlberg in The Fighter. Now put any of those actors in the Damon performance from that year… it’s just not as good of a movie. Even try it with this year: The Martian for Damon and The Revenant for Dicaprio. Can Leo pull off The Martian? One thing’s for sure – it’s definitely not going to be a comedy.
Quick Tangent: Shouldn’t The Martian have not worked? Half the movie is Damon talking into a webcam, and the entirety of it is literally by himself. He plays the good scientist here, an impressive foil (no pun intended) to the bad scientist who can’t operate an airlock. Remember how The Big Short was supposed to make the economic recession easier to understand? Damon, via botanist Mark Watney, makes everything from hexadecimals to poop-food entertaining. Turning desperation into humor is tough, even more so when you don’t have anyone else to bounce your charisma off.
So the next time you queue up the ‘Flix, try watching The Good Shepherd or Syriana, and marvel at the range, consistency, and the fact that he doesn’t have a wife who wasn’t born when he could drink. Take a one-hour insight into his life, or his co-star chemistry, or even his childlike excitement at winning. And then let yourself experience the iconic Jason Bourne, Will Hunting, and Linus Caldwell, and any of the other 18 movies that are better than those two.
He’s not just an actor. But if you’re going to pigeonhole him as such, he’s one of the best.