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.

Fidel Castro interviewed by Oliver Stone in Looking for Fidel

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.