About 30 minutes into watching The Good Shepard, Robert De Niro’s 2006 epic about the founding of the CIA, I was struck by the idea that Matt Damon is once again being asked to represent a certain type of idealist American male purity. Damon, particularly in the first half of his career, was the go-to for the postcard image of traditional white-bread Americana, aka a bunch of casting directors are essentially trying to say that Matt Damon might be the whitest man that ever lived.
Damon is certainly good at playing the part he was ostensibly born for: he has that perfect blank slate for projection, the all-American sears catalog style, and a face that could wax philosophic about football or call the cops on that black family that just moved in next door. He is good at performing a 1950s American masculinity, especially in a movie like Good Shepard, which is all about “America” as a religion and men who chose work and war over family, which eventually sets the tone for the country we have now. Damon brings different variations of this overt whiteness in Oceans 11, School Ties, Good Will Hunting, The Informant!, Suburbicon, Saving Private Ryan, and yes, We Bought a Zoo. All these characters are different from one another but they carry a throughline of red America white male personages. The private school elite bread to be future congressmen or spies, the go nowhere dirtbags hanging in bars all day, the upper class wealthy, the middle class, and the poor; distant fathers, ne’er do well do-gooders, the self-important, the craven opportunists and capitalists alike.
Even now, he’s still at it—most recently with last year’s Stillwater, in which he plays the average Trump voter that got interviewed by the New York Times during the last 4 years. The thing I like about Damon is that he knows exactly what he’s doing and what his whiteness means. It’s different from someone like De Niro who has played every ethnic white imaginable; Damon is plain whitebread, which can be a little like never playing a real person, just a monolith covered in the American flag. And Damon is committed to the bit, sometimes to his own detriment. Damon got himself into a good deal of trouble by going all in on crypto, even starring in commercials encouraging others to invest. A bad judgement call for sure but what’s more American than a ponzi scheme, he can only be himself in the end.
My Matt Damon top 10
Courage Under Fire
The Good Shepard
The Bourne series
Good Will Hunting
Saving Private Ryan
The Talented Mr. Ripley
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