Perez: Why a Latino — not Ben Affleck —Should Have Played ‘Argo’ Lead Role
Hailed as one of the greatest films of the year, Ben Affleck’s Argo has proven that grown-up movies are still audience pleasers–if it’s done right. Affleck has proven himself a keen director with Argo as his successful third major motion picture following Gone Baby Gone and The Town. As you may know by now, Affleck’s newest film is based on a historical account of the Iran hostage crisis from 1979-81.
The film has credited Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 article on Wired Magazine, “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran” as the script’s fact base of the real event. Rolling Stone has stated that Argo is, “Yes, based on fact. Yes, that’s Hollywood code for truth-stretching. But, no, you shouldn’t be that worried.” This, may I add, is true–but we should be worried.
Many film critics have reviewed the film as a great success for a movie based on true events. However, the film takes a truth-telling liberty in the way it chose its starring casts. In reality, the super hero behind the Iran hostage crisis was Antonio Mendez, a Latino CIA officer that has, since then, received the CIA Intelligence Star. So why wasn’t the leading role in Argo performed by a Latino actor? Or does it even matter at all who plays Mendez? It matters substantially.
Sure, Tony Mendez was also involved behind the making of this film and his wife, Jonna even chimed in on who would represent her husband Antonio on screen, “Tommy Lee Jones…But now everyone is too old. Ben [Affleck] is exactly the right age.”
It goes to show that the politics behind the casting of this Hollywood film mainly concerned itself on “which super star would look more badass as a CIA agent” rather than who can represent as close as possible the real Antonio Mendez. This is a crucial part to leave out of the historical picture. It seems as though Antonio, Jonna, and Ben Affleck put first priority the illustration of the courageous events of the Iran hostage crisis by making it an audience pleaser, and what better way than to have the man with a record of saving Pearl Harbor (2001) during the Second World War, on the front lines of the hostage crisis.
Ben Affleck has stated that, “Because we say that it’s based on a true story, rather than this is a true story […] we’re allowed to take some dramatic license.”
I am assuming that the most dramatic change to the real event was having the real Latino CIA agent (Antonio Mendez) be a white Caucasian (Ben Affleck) to fit the canon of the majority of Hollywood hero movies. I say this because the majority of the film takes into account, meticulously, the facts of the 1979-81 occurrence except when it comes to the main leading role.
I raise this issue because movies, especially Hollywood major motion picture films, have the power to affect, on a mass scale, the audience perception on reality—especially a movie that bases its entire plot on a real historical event such as we can see in Argo. Why then didn’t the film use one of the Hollywood Latino actors on their scarce list such as, perhaps, Mario Lopez, Diego Luna, or even Gael Garcia Bernal? I see any of these actors perfectly suitable for the job–so then, why not? Because if it were so, the film would not incur considerable revenue as it did by having Ben Affleck as the starring role. This is because Hollywood is not comfortable having Latinos as heroes in major motion pictures.
I mean, when was the last time you saw a heroic Latino or Latina on the front lines? Last time I could remember was perhaps back in 1988 when Edward James Olmos saved high school dropouts in Stand and Deliver, but otherwise the majority of the representations on major motion pictures have either been as disgruntled and annoying as Belita Moreno in George Lopez or as a sagging old villain as Danny Trejo in Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
In an interview with Open Your Eyes Magazine, Mendez stated that, “I barely speak English well. The Spanish side of my family, my father was a copper miner and he was killed when I was three years old. So I was raised by my mother’s family, which was the non-Spanish speaking side.’ Even if Antonio Mendez does not acknowledge his Latino heritage, it does not change who he is as a Latino–and it certainly doesn’t change his appearance. Ben Affleck goes so far as to make a side-by-side comparison of himself and Antonio Mendez by photographs on screen so the audience can see the similar aesthetics, not blood type or race but simply aesthetics. Why then, if he truly wanted to champion truth, would he go to the trouble of finding an Asian actress to play the role of the Canadian ambassador but not do the same for Mendez?
Affleck only tries to represent the older Antonio Mendez and not the younger. This is because it is easier for Affleck to hide behind the beard and the paler skin. Thus, the older Antonio Mendez looks ambiguous while the younger clearly looks Latino with his dark complexion, thick mustache, and round-beardless face. Why go through all this trouble instead of finding a Latino actor who can easily play the role? It seems as though it was a self-indulgent decision on Ben Affleck’s behalf to play the role because his goal clearly wasn’t to champion the entire truth of the Iran hostage crisis but to rather star himself as the leading role because he wanted his big moment as the American hero in film–once again. But little does the audience know that the real hero was a Latino.
The audience left the theater with two main reactions: Firstly, the thrill factor of having everyone on the edge of their seats on whether the airplane would successfully make it off the ground and secondly, the achievement of an American accomplishment as if only Americans were involved in this crisis because not one Latino appears in the movie, except of course in the end when Affleck and older Mendez are aesthetically compared by photographs. So as I sat in the theater, acknowledging everyone’s celebratory reaction when the mission came to a success, I wondered to myself if everyone would have the same enthusiasm if a Latino had played the Mendez role? Because only one man, a Latino man may I add, was sent out to save the diplomats in Tehran–not Ben Affleck.
Leaving out these important aspects affects ethnic representations in the real world because media can and is often used as a tool that tries to loosely mirror reality, just as this film tries to document and base itself on the historical account of the hostage crisis. In the end, what the film does is strip away the value of an American-born Latino (Antonio Mendez) and base its courageous story on a white Caucasian to fit the canon of Hollywood hero movies. As a Latino, I can attest that this hurts the Latino community at a large because it fails to recognize a proper ethnic record of the hero, which is imperative when basing a film on a real courageous moment in human history. If it did, not only would the film be closer to truth, but it would also be a lot more original than the rest of Hollywood heroic films. Original, in the sense that there would have finally been a major motion picture of Latinos helping Americans, rather than the usual Americans helping Americans or in this case Canadians helping Americans. At least the Hollywood hero has now shifted northward of the country to Canada–but we have yet to see when it will shift south of it.