Judge Adam Arseneau once ate breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who were trained to kill him, and lived to review this documentary.
"We never thought the sun would stop shining…and it did."
The story of Fidel Castro is the story of Cuba, both socially and politically over the last fifty years, a "for better or worse" back-and-forth ping-pong match of managing local social affairs on the island and influencing world politics on a global scale. Fidel Castro, the documentary, does a decent job during its two-hour running time of covering the salient points of Castro's rise to power during the hectic and chaotic social uprising of the 1940s and '50s, his idealistic democratic vision of Cuba, his breakaway from American imperialism, his gradual turn towards socialist views and allegiances with the Soviet Union, and the economic sanctions and growing military hostility coming from the United States as a result. The documentary also touches on Castro's obsession with fueling revolutionary movements all across the planet, Cuba's rise to power in the league of non-aligned nations, and its loss of the same power after its refusal to denounce the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the mass exodus of Cubans to Miami in the '80s, and the fall of the Soviet Union and the near-fatal debilitation of Cuban life that followed. During this tumultuous 40-year history of Cuban events, the economy bounced around like a child playing with a tennis ball indoors, occasionally knocking over a vase or smashing a lamp.
Being an American documentary, Fidel Castro takes the inevitable stance that the majority of Cuba's social, political, and economic problems stemmed—either directly or indirectly—from Cuba's consistent bird-flipping towards the United States in order to gain favor throughout the revolutionary world. To debate the finer points of Cuba's history seems silly in this forum, and I hardly consider myself an expert, so I make this observation based on the merits of the documentary itself. All in all, Fidel Castro is an even-handed and balanced view of the man, the country, and the socio-political environment that gave birth to his infamous rise to power, but the "See what happens when you piss off America?" attitude creeps in now and again. It cannot be helped. Though Cuba's history is extraordinarily complex and tied into the interests of numerous nations, American filmmakers bankrolled by American PBS donations cannot help but create a certain kind of film, one that views Castro's life and his achievements through his consistent, bewildering, and tenacious defiance of the United States. I do not suggest that this is an inaccurate view, but it is arguably a myopic one.
Overall, this documentary is quite professional in pacing and tone, covering most of the important facts, but even for a two-hour documentary it feels far too short. The documentary occasionally lingers on subjects of American interest, like Che Guevara or the Bay of Pigs invasion, and then glazes over a good solid ten years in Cuban social and political life in order to catch up. Forty years of a country's history is simply too great a story to tell in two short hours, but the film tries its darnedest to cover it all.
Ultimately, the film ends on a sour note, on that of a failed revolution, nothing more than a pale mockery of the glorious and promised paradise, which is hard to dispute. Castro, once filled with vibrancy and idealism is left faded, weak, and unimportant, the ending of the Cold War removing whatever political clout his island nation once possessed. The documentary seems to suggest that history has moved on without Castro, and yet he doggedly holds onto the reigns of his horse, having abandoned his dreams of a glorious victory in favor of a stubborn determination to finish, even if dead last. No doubt a Russian-financed documentary on Fidel Castro would have a very different story to tell (heck, even a Canadian one would), but I get sidetracked.
Video and audio quality is quite excellent for a documentary. The transfer is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, which is a pleasant surprise given the full-screen fiesta normally forced down the throat of documentary DVD watchers. It looks great too, with a clean picture and decent detail and black levels. This varies depending on the quality of the stock film and archive material presented, obviously, but even the film's worst moments are better than most documentaries. The audio, a Dolby Digital 2.0 track is completely serviceable, well-balanced and with clean dialogue.
Fidel Castro is a decent documentary on the man and his ambitious empire, and balances itself rather well despite the occasional (but unavoidable) drop of pro-Americanism now and again. The film gives equal and due credit to Castro's social reforms, educational policies, and health care initiatives while simultaneously lambasting his total crushing grip on the free press and voices of opposition, his human rights violations, and all the other jerky things Castro did over the last 40 years (with which you could probably fill three or four documentaries).
Though not perfect, this is as fine a balanced and informative documentary that you are likely to find on the subject. If you are at all curious about the man, or Cuban history, or looking for something else to rent after finding Buena Vista Social Club checked out of the video store, then Fidel Castro would be an excellent stamp on your passport.
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• Interview with the Producer
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