For all the ups and downs in Ben Affleck's acting career, when it comes to stepping behind the lens he's barely put a foot wrong after writing Oscar winner Good Will Hunting and the directorial double-punch of Gone Baby Gone and The Town.
His latest offering Argo, screening at this year's BFI London Film Festival, is a based on a true story that's outlandish even by Hollywood standards. The action takes place during the 1979 Iranian Revolution as a US embassy in Tehran is overrun by Islamic militants. Six American staff escape and hole up with Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), but with no clear way to get out of the country, CIA exfiltration whizz Tony Mendez (Affleck) hatches a unique plan to bust them out. He'll stage a location scout in Iran for a fake movie using key crew roles as the hostages' cover.
Mendez heads behind enemy lines posing as producer Kevin Harkin, pulling together counterfeit passports and briefing the six hostages on their film industry alter-egos. All the while Bryan Cranston's CIA supervisor Jack O'Donnell finds himself having to manoeuvre around the government higher-ups keen to execute a more conventional solution.
Argo works as both a tense espionage thriller and pointed Hollywood satire. Affleck has fun taking digs at the shallowness of the movie industry, but with Goodman and Arkin as the supporting players he's able to pull off these moments of wry humour without jarring too heavily against the more dramatic elements. Tonal shifts are managed well, and Argo is a rattling good cat and mouse chase when it comes to the crunch. Nails will dig into the armchair of your cinema seat during the crew's tour through an Iranian market and a confrontation between the group that results in Joe (Scoot McNairy) talking armed guards through the film's storyboarded action sequences.
The only misstep is a dangling story thread, about Mendez's separation from his wife and son, which is never given much screen time to play out. Affleck plays the kind of straight-arrow character that Kevin Costner was known for in the '80s, and in Argo the efforts to make him a more complex individual never quite stick or feel like they're necessary.
That said, it's hard to get too picky about Argo. Under its own terms as an upscale mainstream thriller, it's a total success. This is classy moviemaking, from its well-observed performances to immaculate eye for period detail. The latter begins with the retro Warner Bros opening logo and gets carried through in the '70s throwback visual style and texture. Expect this one to get a fair bit of Academy love when the Oscars roll around next year.
Photo gallery - BFI London Film Festival in pictures: