Simply put—it’s racist.
Sure, it’s not “racist” in the obvious sense. Nobody is dressed in sombreros and doing the Macarena, while people are calling them “Spics” in the background.
They just got a Caucasian to play a Latino because Ben Affleck is more familiar to the movie-going populace than most Latino actors, and would therefore be more marketable (and also, he directed the movie). It’s not like Affleck changed Mendez’s name to a white guy’s name and pretended that he was actually a white guy. It’s a harmless way to endear the movie to a wider audience, right?
What the film is doing is erasing the very real contributions of members of a marginalized group in exchange for “more marketability,” while still claiming to be a “socially-progressive,” Oscar-bait movie.
Sure, anyone who is so inclined to could easily google Tony Mendez’s name and see the real man—but the thing is, most people don’t do that extra research on entertainment media. They accept it at face value, which is harmless on most occasions.
But later on, when these same people get older, and they feel uncomfortable in voting for a Latino for public office because they wonder “what have Latinos ever done for our country except take our jobs,” blah blah—that’s when it matters. People fail to make the connection that these marginalized people have always been part of our country and have made many important contributions for the good of our whole populace because they don’t remember seeing many instances of it in the media. Why?
Because while only a small sector of our population goes on to become historians, a significantly larger portion of our population watches movies. And these movies stay with us MUCH longer than what we read in our high school history textbooks do, and they influence our attitudes towards subjects in everyday life.
More people remember Titanic as a “tragic love story,” rather than as a study of the importance of precaution in modern engineering, because of the 1997 blockbuster.
Just like now, more people are going to remember Argo as the story of yet another white dude doing cool espionage shit, rather than as the story of a Latino man’s important contributions to saving American lives during the Iran hostage crisis.