HOLLYWOOD &

Ben Affleck is musing about why Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty are such gods to a younger generation of actors, especially actors trying their hand at directing, as Affleck has just done with the new film "Gone Baby Gone," when he gets to the nub of things. Of course Eastwood and Beatty are wise, talented men who've consistently made personal films, but Affleck knows there's something more compelling about their choices in life.

"What really sets them apart," he says, "is that they don't seem to need to please other people." That last observation is accompanied by a rueful smile, since Affleck is self-aware enough to know that trying to please people has played a large role in his own fall from grace, a fall hastened by the poisonous tabloid exploitation of his brief engagement to Jennifer Lopez. Over the last decade, he's boxed the compass, going from baby-faced Sundance sensation ("Chasing Amy") to Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Good Will Hunting") to Michael Bay -blockbuster movie star ("Pearl Harbor") to "Bennifer"-era-tabloid subject of derision ("Gigli"). After several box-office duds, his last film, "Man About Town," never got a theatrical release.

You know times are hard when the Onion runs a photo of a forlorn Affleck with the headline: "Ben Affleck Hoping Jason Bourne Has Sidekick in Next Movie." A passionate baseball fan, Affleck offers a refreshingly blunt assessment of how Hollywood views his acting career at the moment: "You don't get four strikes."

Affleck can wax eloquent about fighting AIDS in Africa, analyze the insidious nature of using what many consider torture in the war on terror and quote the Latin motto of the Carthusian Order &

"Stat crux dum volvitur orbis" ("The cross is steady while the world is turning") &

but no matter how much you are impressed by his thoughtful demeanor, it's hard to avoid the obvious question: How did someone so smart end up in so many dumb movies? At 35, Affleck is still unwrinkled and boyishly handsome, but the scars from his career choices and tabloid tormentors aren't far from the surface.

Even just last week he found himself being quoted in the tabloids &

falsely he says &

complaining that Lopez had "hurt his career." Affleck, who is now married to actress Jennifer Garner , argues that "surely there are other things more important in the world, such as poverty in America, the fact that New Orleans hasn't been rebuilt, my movie, the Red Sox getting back to the World Series." As for the quote in question, it "not only makes me look like a petulant fool, but it surely qualifies as ungentlemanly. For the record, did she hurt my career? No."

It is not uncommon to sit down with Hollywood talent who seem entirely clueless about how damaging their choices have been. Far from being in denial, Affleck has the air of someone who has spent many a night brooding about how things have gone awry. For him, the whole painful experience can be boiled down to a mantra-like life lesson: "What you do speaks for you."

That seems to be the guiding principle behind tackling "Gone Baby Gone," a dark, disturbing thriller about the search for a missing child that is far more a wrenching morality tale than a crowd-pleasing entertainment. Shot in blue-collar Boston and adorned with a stellar cast that includes Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman and Amy Ryan, the film cost $19 million, not much more than what Affleck used to get for his superstar roles. Among Hollywood cogno scenti, Affleck's determination to direct a gritty Dennis Lehane novel has a high degree of difficulty, starting with the fact that, when it comes to Lehane territory, Affleck is following Eastwood's "Mystic River," which is sort of like following the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard in a home-run hitting contest.

Just to up the ante, Affleck cast his little brother, Casey Affleck, in the film's leading role, playing Patrick Kenzie, the dogged private investigator who refuses to give up his search for the missing child, no matter where it might lead. Affleck admits that he was scared the first day he strode onto the set. "My chest was tight as a drum. It was like being in class where you're thinking, 'What if I get up to the lectern and have nothing to say?' But I knew I wanted to get up to the lectern."

I'd argue that his faith has been rewarded. The movie showcases Affleck's gift for coaxing great performances out of his actors, most notably Casey, who has won raves for his role as an easily underestimated investigator. But the film also has earned praise for the unstinting way it grapples with difficult moral choices, reminding us that doing the right thing is often a true test of character.

The early reviews have been full of praise. Lauding its "rich gallery of vivid characters," The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber said "Gone Baby Gone" will be "remembered as one of the best crime movies of this decade."

The rights to the key characters in "Gone Baby Gone" were owned by Alan Ladd Jr., who'd gotten then-Paramount chief Sherry Lansing to buy them when he had a deal at the studio. Affleck approached Ladd and expressed interest in writing the script. The veteran producer was eager to work with him but became impatient when Affleck, who co-wrote the screenplay with an old Boston pal, Aaron Stockard, was too busy acting to finish it.

"I kept saying, 'Where's the screenplay?' and he kept procrastinating," Ladd recalls. "I'd see him on weekends, when I was producing a film (' An Unfinished Life ') with Jennifer Lopez, and he'd say, 'Oh, the script is in the car. I'll go get it.' And the next thing I knew, he'd be driving off in the car, waving goodbye."

the time Affleck and Stockard finished the script, Lansing had left Paramount and the studio had put her projects in turnaround. Affleck called Disney chief Dick Cook, who agreed to back the film, which is being released through the studio's Miramax subsidiary. Affleck admits it took a long time to get the script right, but as he puts it, "It was time to try something new. I'd spent a lot of time feeling frustrated, standing around a movie set, thinking I wish we could try the scene this way or do the shot that way. I just felt like maybe this is a way to have a sense of authorship about what I was doing without having to stick (my) face out there."

One of the many impressive aspects of the film, which opens Friday , is its vivid sense of place. Affleck felt that for audiences to embrace the larger themes of the story, they needed an unimpeachable belief in its smallest details. When his cameras take us into a dingy South Boston bar, the bar is populated with people who have actually spent a lot of time in that bar.

"If you didn't believe they lived there, even on a subconscious level, then I'd completely failed," he explains. "We ended up in a lot of bars at 8 or 9 a.m., a time when you get a particular type of person in a bar. That extended to whatever additional production design we were doing. I was always very suspicious of anything 'added' to what already existed. I kept asking, 'Why would you paint anything over? Why would he get a new hat?' "

Affleck laughs. "I think it got to the point where maybe (they) wondered if I knew there were other aspects to making the movie beyond just casting extras and day players, but my hope was that this would work at the underside of the audience's brain while the story was working at the conscious side."

It's not hard to see why Affleck identified with the way Lehane portrayed the circus-like atmosphere that surrounded the child's kidnapping. As he puts it: "It's really about how people get whipped into a frenzy over the headlines about a little girl being abducted instead of people looking around at what's going on in their own living rooms, which felt to me like an indictment of the media and our culture today."

Affleck tries to avoid sounding a note of self-pity when discussing his own tabloid troubles, but occasionally he drops his guard. "It actually got to the point where a comic came up to me and said, 'I want to do a bit about how you actually got worse press than (convicted murderer) Scott Peterson. Of course, I wouldn't want to do it if it would make you mad.'"

It's hard to imagine anyone being so considerate &

if you can call it that &

of Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. But in Hollywood, Affleck has garnered more sympathy than most tabloid targets, perhaps because of his resilience &

he's taken the hits and he's still standing &

or because he's hardly a vapid celebrity diva. When we spoke, he'd just returned from a trip to Tanzania in support of the One campaign that works to combat preventable diseases and extreme poverty.

Unlike most celebrities, Affleck not only had a firm grasp of where he'd gone and what he'd seen but understood his true value as a spokesman, saying that instead of button-holing congressmen, he was trying to influence the electorate, "a special interest group to whom the politicians have no choice but to listen." Most people who hear Affleck talk come away impressed. As John Powers recently wrote in Los Angeles magazine, when Affleck was interviewed during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, "his analysis was every bit as penetrating as that of The New York Times' David Brooks."

It's telling that Morgan Freeman says he took a part in "Gone Baby Gone" not just because he liked the script, but because he enjoyed Affleck's company. "I just really like Ben," Freeman explains. "I know what he's gone through, but he's really come out the other side glowing. He's always been a guy with a good head on his shoulders, so when he had a good story to tell, I was eager to be a part of it."

Affleck is so well-studied that &

irony of all ironies &

he offers what is perhaps the most trenchant analysis of how he became a media target. "The first half of the media cycle was fascination; the second half of the cycle was rejection," he says. "What I never realized was that the public doesn't end up blaming the magazines that write every insane, untrue story &

fanning them, marketing them and foisting them unceasingly on (people) who began feeling as though they couldn't escape it. So they blame the subjects of the story, who they believe are pushing themselves in their face all the time, rather than the manufacturers."

Affleck sighs. "That turned out to be me, even though by that point I wasn't pushing anything. I was hiding in the basement."

Affleck isn't trying to let himself off the hook. He took pains to say that when it came to his career choices, "only the mistakes are mine." What seems different about his new film is that, as a director, not an actor, he has found a subject close to his soul. When he talks about his work to help fund AIDS programs in Africa or bemoans what he says is America's use of torture in the war on terror, he begins to resemble the obsessive investigator in "Gone Baby Gone." Like Dennis Lehane, Affleck is a moralist, someone who can agonize over the wrongs in the world long into the night.

As he attempts a new chapter in his career, he is determined to avoid trying to please people. His mistakes, as he sees it, were "basing decisions on what I imagined others might think versus my own personal sense of direction, the simple gut level, 'Do I think this is a good idea?' "

His leap into filmmaking, which led to "Gone Baby Gone," is a way of making a choice on its own merits and living with it. It's a choice very much like the one that haunts many of the characters in his movie, who are tormented by the wrenching moral decisions they have to confront in a very imperfect world.

"There's a line in our script that we had to cut out of the film that I really love, because it reminded me how hard it is to do what's right, especially when it forces you to confront things about yourself that you don't always want to see," Affleck says. "But it says what matters: 'If the right thing were easy, everyone would do it.' "