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Ben Affleck. Super-chatty! Articulate! Handsome! Warren Beatty for the new millennium. And maybe, eventually, a Ronald Reagan for the Democrats? During a round-table interview in September, he sure looked the part, wearing a luxe jacket, subtle plaid shirt and jeans. There was eye contact! There was clarity! His answers were full. He talked with his hands. From his first words, "so what can I tell you?" to his last, "football camp," he was nothing but winning.

It was a pleasure to witness, because Affleck, 40, has done some fumbling. He arrived onscreen, baby-faced, in indies (Dazed and Confused) and almost immediately won an Oscar for his first screenplay, Good Will Hunting. He rose to big-studio heights in rom-coms and action flicks (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor). Then in 2003, it all went pear-shaped. He lolled on a yacht stroking the (pear-shaped) backside of his then-fiancé Jennifer Lopez in one of her music videos. His film titles became punchlines ( Daredevil,Gigli, Jersey Girl). There were honking pink diamonds. There were lap dancers.

But Affleck stayed in the game. He married the sweet Jennifer Garner in 2005, transforming himself into a happy family man with two daughters and a baby son. "You know how as a kid you picture yourself with a tall, handsome husband, and you imagine him cuddling your baby?" Garner told me in 2006. "Ben is that, like, on crack."

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In 2007, his directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, hit screens, so good it was almost spooky, and his sophomore effort, the heist picture The Town, cemented it: Ben Affleck is a director. "On the immigration forms, on the occupation line, forever I wrote Actor," he admits. "But I was noticing recently that I wrote Director. So yeah, I call myself a filmmaker, an actor, a writer, a producer, because to me they're all part of the same soup. That's the soup I want to be swimming in."

His third film, Argo, opened Friday, and it stirs all of Affleck's strengths into one snappy, whip-smart brew. It's the true, recently declassified story of how Hollywood, the CIA and Ken Taylor, then the Canadian ambassador to Iran, conspired to sneak six U.S. hostages out of Tehran in 1979 disguised as a film crew. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA exfiltration expert who concocted the scheme. As Garner might put it, it's everything that adult audiences and Oscar voters love, like, on crack.

What other former Middle East studies major (at the University of Vermont), activist and movie spy could have met with CIA head General David Petraeus and secured permission to shoot at the real CIA (the first film in 25 years to do so), or convinced Turkish officials to let him screw 4,000 period light bulbs into the fixtures at Istanbul's revered Hagia Sofia (a former Orthodox basilica, now a museum)? "It was the last day of shooting, it was 2 in the morning, I was sick with the flu, and they originally wanted all the bulbs changed back," Affleck remembers. "Then they saw them and said [deep Turkish accent], 'No, you can leave them, they look good.'" (Who else could pull off a deep Turkish accent?)

Who else could have composed a shot that starts on a drink being carried across a room where actors are doing a read-through of a terrible Star Wars rip-off, and ends up on a TV screen showing a firing squad? "I think it's the one time the whole movie's bound up together and flows into itself," Affleck says. And who else could treat the Hollywood portion of Argo with the ideal combination of affection, cynicism and deadpan humour?

His perspective is hard-earned. "I don't read most of the stuff about me or my wife because it becomes a snake eating its tail," Affleck says. "We try to have as much normalcy at home as we can." He avoids the paparazzi, especially those who target his children, which he calls "pernicious and vile." But the bulk of his success is "wonderful gravy," he says. "I get to make movies about the things I'm interested in. I've been working my whole career to get here, and it's a great place to be. I recognize that Hollywood is not about seniority. Often it's not even a meritocracy. It's about what you did yesterday. You have a couple of misses, and suddenly it's impossible to find a hit. So the swings are gigantic. But I've always understood it as such, and navigated it as such."

Having rebranded himself as a director is "really, really satisfying," Affleck acknowledges, grinning. "I probably did not feel like a director on Gone Baby Gone. I felt like a rat, on a cliff, scrambling with his claws to not fall off. I was a little less scrambly on the second one, and I learned a lot on this. I don't mean to suggest that I'm some great talent, but I have worked really hard, and I'm proud of that."

"Ben's astonishing," says Victor Garber, who plays Taylor, in a separate interview. "He was so calm, so much fun – under an enormous amount of pressure. He's meticulous; he knows what he wants. Obviously, I'm close to his wife [they co-starred in the hit series Alias] and their children, but this was the first time I really collaborated with him. It was a joy."

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As for his own performance, Affleck asks his script supervisor, Sheila Waldron, to keep an eye on him. "But sometimes she hurts my feelings," he joshes. "She'll whisper, 'That one seemed kind of fake.'" He feigns anger: "'What do you mean it seemed fake, you seem fake! Get out of here!' So I'm not quite secure enough to take notes from her." Instead, he shoots multiple takes with a lot of variance in them, and makes choices "in the cool dark of the editing room, when I have some perspective."

He mentions the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which to him is about "the value of work, and of always learning something new, and what it takes to achieve excellence." He found it inspiring. "I really believe in those things – that you have to dedicate yourself and spend time, that excellence is elusive. It's a little maddening, to try to have that level of discipline in your life, and I don't succeed all the time. But I do try." See what I mean about his potential as a politician? He believes! Perhaps his strongest belief is that "you have to be kind to people," Affleck says. "Treat them decently. There's no excuse for not."

Which is why, when Affleck learned that Taylor felt slighted by a card at the end of Argo that minimized his contribution to the hostages' escape, Affleck phoned him, flew him and his wife to Los Angeles, screened the film for them on the Warner Bros. lot, lunched with them, listened to them and rewrote it. Now Affleck and Taylor, 77, are pals: Taylor taped a commentary for the eventual DVD release, and Affleck toasted him on Wednesday night at a gala reception at the Canadian embassy before the film's Washington, D.C., premiere, attended by Garner, Petraeus and a few of the real hostages.

That attitude is why Affleck deserves to have ridden all those swings and landed on top. "To me," he sums up, "it's treat people with respect" – he laughs – "or fuck off."

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