Looking for Fidel
Finding Very Little New
In 2003, Oliver Stone arranged a lengthy series of interview with Cuban jefe Fidel Castro. The subject of these interviews was Cuba’s crackdown on would-be defectors—specifically, those who attempted to flee the island nation via highjackings and other drastic measures.
Stone turned the interview footage into a 2004 episode of an HBO investigative reporting series, and the hour-long short film is now being released on DVD by Cinema Libre under the episode title Looking for Fidel.
I honestly don’t know what to make of the title. The documentary doesn’t include any background about why or how Stone was motivated or managed to arrange an interview with Castro; but it’s plainly evident that he didn’t struggle to find Castro in any non-metaphorical sense—at least not after the fashion that Michael Moore has trouble securing on-camera remarks. And the interviews, while certainly probing deeply into specific issues such as Cuba’s execution of summarily convicted would-be highjackers,I never give the sense that we are seeing Castro in any particularly new light.
Part of the problem is that Castro is not exactly a mystery to Americans. Even before the Bay of Pigs incident, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro was already a figure of mythic proportions well-bolstered by all manner of eccentric newsreel footage. So when Stone’s cameramen focus on Castro’s claw-like fingernails, the oddly intermittent soundtrack intrudes with some circus-sideshow riffs, or Castro launches into one of his trademark mild tirades, all Stone manages is to reinforce old clichés. I’d hardly call that a discovery.
What Stone does reveal, though, is that Castro is a fairly decent and incisive listener, quick enough to trip up Stone on his imprecise and leading questioning, yet sensitive enough to understand a good deal about the psychology and appeal of capitalism. When Castro declares that he’s not a tactical philosopher but rather a man of action, I buy it one hundred percent. As he sees it, he’s still working out an experiment in social justice in the middle of a war zone. And practically speaking, that’s not far off the mark.
But this is far from Stone’s best filmmaking. The roaming two-camera shoot that Stone employs is irritating and intrusive, and Stone—obviously in a pressure-cooker environment—doesn’t seem quite up to snuff on his energy level. He’s obviously trying very hard here to be a journalistic bulldog, but he often seems to also want to throw an arm around Castro’s shoulders and indulge in a revolutionary-to-revolutionary cigar or two.
Anyone who’s followed Stone much knows what his political bent is—so it may come as a surprise to Stone detractors that he is as hard on both Castro and Castro’s critics as he is. His very direct questioning reveals Castro, dissidents, and money-grubbing defectors alike as propagandists and dissemblers. Castro, Stone seems to be saying, is just as big a question-dodging polemicist as any communist-bashing hawk in American politics.
Those not already aligned with Stone’s way of thinking, though, will likely never get to the point of congratulating Stone on his even-handedness, given the knee-deep wading through Cinema Libre’s left-leaning trailers that precede the release’s main event.
Looking for Fidel is unrated. Call it PG. I don’t remember if there was any objectionable content here, but you know: Castro is at least mildly dangerous.
Courtesy of the film’s distributor, Greg screened a promotional copy of Looking for Fidel.