For a little while it looked as if Ben Affleck might try to be the next Harrison Ford: He starred in action movies like "Daredevil" and "Armageddon" and even briefly filled Mr. Ford's old shoes in the role of Tom Clancy hero Jack Ryan in 2002's "The Sum of All Fears."
But Mr. Affleck's career as a blockbuster leading man never quite soared, and in recent years his directing efforts, "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Town," have shown more promise than any of his gigs in front of the camera. "Argo," Mr. Affleck's third directorial turn, suggests a different path for his career: Following not Mr. Ford, but Ron Howard, the actor-turned-director who, with films like "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind," often represents the epitome of major-studio competence.
Mr. Affleck's sensibility is grittier than Mr. Howard's and considerably more focused on violence, as well as the sociological factors that create it. But his confident work on "Argo" suggests that, like Mr. Howard, he is a director who can be counted on to deliver as a solid and engaging storyteller.
Part of the trick, of course, is selecting good material. "Argo" certainly qualifies. It's the so-strange-it-could-only-be-true tale of a secret CIA mission to rescue six American diplomatic officers who managed to escape from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran when it was overrun to start the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
Mr. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the agent who helped craft and execute an absolutely bonkers plan to get the six Americans hiding in the Canadian ambassador's home safely out of the country. The cover story they chose was of the so-crazy-it-just-might-work variety: a Hollywood production crew scouting locations for a big sci-fi movie.
The challenge was to make it look real. Mendez enlists help from a Hollywood makeup effects artist, John Chambers (John Goodman), and a producer, Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), to create an entire fake-movie-infrastructure: cheesy sci-fi posters, a production office, script and storyboard — even a press announcement in Variety. Eventually Mendez makes his way to Iran to help the six trapped Americans learn their cover stories and escape.
Mr. Affleck handles the proceedings with the deftness of an old studio hand, nimbly juxtaposing the nerve-wracking tension in Iran with the comic absurdity of the operational details back in the U.S.
If there's a weak point, it's the script by Chris Terrio, which was based on a "Wired" article by Joshuah Bearman. Mr. Terrio has designed scenes to build tension, but includes too many characters that he doesn't quite develop.
The best compliment I can pay to the film is that it feels like a movie from an earlier era — less frenetic, less showy, more focused on narrative than sensation. Part of that is stylistic: Mr. Affleck borrows heavily but effectively from 1970s political thrillers, adopting that era's grittier film stock and harsher light. He even sneaks in a few shots that directly reference "All the President's Men." But part of it is a straightforward focus on storytelling basics.
It's clever, in other words, but mostly it's watchable and entertaining. Mr. Affleck's movie may be about a silly, fake film, but the work he does behind the camera is real — and very good.
CREDITS: Directed by Ben Affleck; screenplay by Chris Terrio
RATING: R for violent imagery, harsh language
RUNNING TIME: 120 Minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS