Ben Affleck’s career rejuvenation over the last five years, since he made his feature film debut as a director with Gone Baby Gone, is nothing short of remarkable. He went from a punchline, the should-be A-lister who blew all his good will on a cheesy too-public relationship with Jennifer Lopez and a string of shitty movies (although Reindeer Games did yield one of the best lines in The Avengers), to one of the most reliable and entertaining American filmmakers. Case in point: I HATED Affleck even just a couple years ago (I wasn’t convinced Baby wasn’t a fluke) and picked on him constantly. But now I can’t wait to see his movies and freely admit he’s totally won me over against my will. Now there’s a “how did he DO that” for you.

Argo, Affleck’s follow up to the highly admirable The Town, is the best movie he’s made yet. Adapted by Chris Terrio (Heights) from an article by Joshuah Bearman, Argo is a tense, tightly paced spy thriller set during the Iran Hostage crisis of 1979-1980. The story is about the “Houseguests”, six Foreign Service workers who escaped the US Embassy as it was being overrun in Tehran and spent several months hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house. But the focus is on Tony Mendez, aka “Kevin Harkins”, a CIA operative who is an “exfil” specialist (for “exfiltration”, a military term for extraction). Affleck stars at Tony/Kevin, and as with The Town, he does a credible job—he really isn’t a bad actor—but I wish he would stop starring in his own movies. It’s not so much a him thing as it is all directors who act in their own movies—I just don’t like that. I think it pulls focus from the act of filmmaking, and every movie with an actor/director could be at least 5% better if the director just stayed behind the camera.

Argo is a stark contrast to both Baby and The Town, both of which were shot in Boston and in cold, drab colors. Argo, however, is soaked in rich yellow light, evocative of both Los Angeles and Iran. The Town was particularly cold and hard—which worked perfectly with the story—and it’s like here Affleck just wanted to wash everything in warm tones and cleanse his palate. Even the interiors are shot with that orangey-yellow light of old light bulbs. Affleck’s photographic eye is steadily maturing, too, and the end credits include a series of actual photographs from the 1979 Iranian revolution next to the recreated image in the film. He put a lot of care into framing these shots and while they’re very authentic, they don’t feel like copy-cats. It was actually surprising to see how accurate he was during the end credits, because every frame feels organic, not influenced.

Of course equal credit has to be handed to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who has previously done stellar work on Brokeback Mountain, Babel and Water for Elephants. Also deserving a mention is Alexandre Desplat’s score. It’s not as distinctive as Alberto Iglesias’s phenomenal score for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also dealt with Cold War-era spy craft), but Desplat provided a rich background for Affleck’s long stretches of silence or tense conversations.

What struck me about Argo was the balance between explosive action—the scene showing the embassy being overrun is thrilling—and the more contemplative side of the characters. Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) is on a short fuse as Mendez’s CIA boss, Jack O’Donnell. But Mendez is, in contrast, a pretty quiet dude. Affleck’s portrayal of him is all hang-dog looks and sincere reassurance. Baby and The Town both suffered a little from slightly off-kilter pacing, the rhythms starting and stopping a bit between expository scenes, action sequences, and reactive moments. But Argo moves smoothly through its paces, never dragging or stumbling even as the movie switches gears through tight spy thriller to Hollywood comedy (the LA sequence is surprisingly funny) to race-against-time action flick. Affleck is growing up as a filmmaker and Argo evinces newly found and assured footing for him. No longer my favorite punching bag, Ben Affleck is now one of my favorite filmmakers.

How did he DO that?!