It'll probably be decades before Ben Affleck takes to the stage at a giant political convention and starts talking to an empty chair, but don't be surprised if it happens. In so many ways - good ways - Affleck is following in the career footsteps of another exceptionally accomplished actor-turned-filmmaker, Clint Eastwood.

In just his third feature as director - the smart, suspenseful and improbably true-life rescue saga, Argo - Affleck stars in and steers a sizable cast through a taut and terrifically crazy tale. It's the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and six State Department employees have escaped the rush of rioters storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. (The unsettling déjà vu, with the film coming less than a month after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, was certainly not in Warner Bros.' marketing plans.) The group has taken shelter in the Canadian Embassy, but it's only a matter of time before they're found out. How to engineer their getaway?

Send a CIA "exfiltration" specialist in. That would be Tony Mendez (Affleck), an ice-cool G-man who comes up with a scheme so far-fetched that it sounds like the stuff of a cheesy Tinseltown movie. And that, in fact, is his plan: to convince the new Iranian regime that he and his six colleagues (yes, the increasingly scared U.S. stowaways) are a film crew, scouting locations for a sci-fi fantasy adventure called Argo. After a couple of days touring the sites, they'll hop on a plane and return to L.A.

The revolutionaries aren't dummies, though. Mendez has to set up a production office on a studio backlot (manned by a pair of old-school movie men, played with gusto by Alan Arkin and John Goodman), buy ads in the trade mags, create storyboards and a script and then make his way to Tehran, sneak into the Canadian Embassy to meet with the State Department six and prep them to act like screenwriters, producers, and cinematographers, eager to explore the exotic marketplaces of the city and the scenic desert backdrops that ring Tehran.

Oh, yes, there are passports to forge, and government cultural officials to persuade, and 52 fellow Americans held captive somewhere in the city.

Risky? Absolutely. One of Affleck's great feats in Argo is to show both Mendez's confidence and calm, but also the nagging doubt and dread in his eyes. He knows this could all go wrong. And things come very close to doing so, thanks - or no thanks - to the Revolutionary Guard, but also to second-guessing back in Washington. The back-in-D.C. crowd includes Bryan Cranston, as Mendez's phone-wielding CIA overseer; Kyle Chandler, as Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's chief of staff; and Chris Messina. Victor Garber plays Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor with north-of-the-border placidity - the Canadian role in harboring the six, and then aiding in their escape, placed Taylor and his government at risk as well.

Argo's white-knuckle nail-biter of a climax takes liberties with how events played out in real life. But while Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have opted to go Hollywood, it's high-class Hollywood, not the low-rent and exploitative route that the make-believe movie at the heart of this tale would have taken.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies