It’s not so surprising that Oliver Stone, a director whose incendiary world view sparked such features as “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers,” would be drawn to Fidel Castro. Here’s another tough guy with whom he could compare notes on running the show.
In “Looking for Fidel,” his new HBO documentary that premieres 8 p.m. ET April 14, Stone not only looked for Fidel but hung with him last spring.
“Looking for Fidel” is billed as a follow-up to “Comandante,” Stone’s 2003 documentary on the Cuban leader. But from the standpoint of HBO viewers, who were spared “Comandante” when the network yanked it before its scheduled airdate a year ago, the new film will serve as Stone’s first exploration.
“Comandante” resulted from three days Stone spent with Castro in early 2002. But that film’s currency was undone last spring when the Cuban government abruptly cracked down on its opposition, arresting some 75 political dissidents and executing three men convicted of hijacking a passenger ferry to get to the United States.
No less a defect: “Comandante” was a barely coherent vanity production placing the filmmaker at its core while dabbling with the question: Who’s that old fellow with the beard beside Oliver Stone?
By contrast, the new film, though hampered by stylishly fidgety camera work and choppy editing, willingly shares the stage with its nominal subject. Returning to Cuba last May for more face time with Castro, Stone came away with a much more balanced portrait.
The man in commandThen 76 and for nearly 45 years in control of the Western Hemisphere’s only communist state, Castro radiates grandiosity spiced with a my-hands-are-tied brand of denial.
When Stone refers to his lengthy regime, Castro (with whom Stone communicates through a translator) declares, “I am not the one in power. It is the people who are in power.”
In a remarkable interlude, Stone questions eight men who were arrested after attempting to hijack a plane to the U.S., all under the appraising eye of Castro seated off to the side.
Stone inquires why they made the attempt. Economic reasons, they say.
Facing life sentences, they are asked by Stone to propose a just penalty. One man says 30 years “would match the seriousness of our crime.” No one asks for less than that.
Then Castro speaks up: “If you had the responsibility,” he asks the group, “what would YOU do to prevent a wave of hijackings that could cost many lives and even a war? ... You all understand that the country had to take certain measures.”
“Of course, absolutely,” says one of the men, nodding agreeably.
At the end of the session, Castro, noting that “I am not a judge,” reminds the accused, “We do not throw people in jail for vengeance,” and wishes them the best at their trials.
All would be found guilty, the viewer is told, with five of them sentenced to life.
Propensity for propagandaWhile the new wave of illegal emigration and other crimes against the state must be nipped in the bud, says Castro, he denies that political dissidents are targets of systematic government harassment.
Stone has no trouble finding others to dispute that view. He interviews activists, wives of imprisoned journalists, the mother of one of the executed hijackers.
“This country has enormous capacity for propaganda, and it can offer a facade that has nothing to do with the true Cuba, the real Cuba,” says Elizardo Sanchez, president of a national human rights commission.
Castro responds that the 75 “prisoners of conscience” should be regarded as U.S.-funded mercenaries. He argues that he must defend himself against the U.S., which, he says, finances Cuba’s dissident population and is eager to engineer his own downfall.
It was always his life’s destiny — though not his preference — to be at war with the United States, says Castro. And he adds he isn’t going anywhere: “I am not willing to please Mr. Bush.”
Repeatedly, Stone asks Castro if he has considered not stepping down, but just stepping aside. The closest Castro comes to answering: If he thought that was the right thing, he would do so.
Near the end of the one-hour film, Castro takes Stone to the streets, where they wade through a sea of cheering admirers.
One man pledges to be part of the ongoing struggle to defeat “Yankee imperialism.”
“But they have lots of bombers and bombs,” Castro reminds him.
“Comandante,” the man replies defiantly, “beneath the shadow of those planes we are able to fight. And we are able to resist. And we will be able to win!”