Amongst his many leading-man roles, it’s telling that the first performance that always jumps to mind when I’m asked about Matt Damon is a small cameo. Amongst the drawn out visions of the life of the radical Cuban militant Che Guevera in Steven Soderbergh’s astonishing four-hour-long Che, Damon appears in the second movement of the film, for a moment, as a German priest attempting to strike piece between Benicio Del Toro’s Che and the Bolivians. Considering that Del Toro is the biggest name in the film otherwise, Damon’s appearance comes to signal something unexpected in a film that is, in its way, a consideration of the fight to get a personal film made and distributed in the modern marketplace. In the story, Damon was the comely, reasonable voice of peace, a symbol of compromise in a film about resisting compromise in the hopes of making something that is truly yours.
And as an actor, Damon has come to represent a career about compromise. Big-budget, left-leaning blockbusters figure into Damon’s oeuvre equally as much as smaller, more intimate projects that touch on personal political issues for the vocal movie star. Before Jason Bourne, his last two films were The Martian and Interstellar, two science fiction epics with humongous budgets and plenty of star power alongside him, but before that, he lent his talents to both Terry Gilliam’s bizarre The Zero Theorem and Gus Van Sant’s quite excellent Promised Land while also playing a whippersnapper in George Clooney’s deeply dull The Monuments Men and an unlikely action hero in Elysium.
Few major actors feel such a pressing need to work with artists both big and small, flush with cash and scraping by; his friend and writing partner Ben Affleck certainly hasn’t felt that need for awhile. There are plenty of benefits to this work philosophy for Damon, who has only indulged in auteur-led franchises like Bourne and Ocean’s Eleven thus far, but one is that he’s played a myriad of character types in a vast array of films that range from genre workouts to eyes-on-the-Oscar-prize dramas to grippingly personal true-life biopics. On the eve of Jason Bourne’s release, I thought I’d gather up his best work thus far that hasn’t been under director Paul Greengrass (or Doug Liman) in the Bourne films.