Castro is revolutionary, CBS is rather far from it

July 18, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

CBS anchorman Dan Rather plays "This Is Your Life" with Cuba's Fidel Castro tonight, and the results are both revealing and dismaying.

"Profile of a Revolutionary," which airs at 9 on WJZ (Channel 13) under the celebrated banner of "CBS Reports," is more an uneven series of "Kodak Moments" than the kind of sustained character study the title tries to suggest. Rather comes to Cuba armed with old photographs of Castro, and much of the hour is spent with Rather flashing the pictures in front of the revolutionary leader in hopes of generating emotion.

At its very worst, the report resembles the 1950s television show in which an audience member was surprised by the host, yanked up on stage and forced to face people from his past who the producers had waiting in the wings. Tonight, we hit rock bottom when the 70-year-old Castro is shown an ancient snapshot of a female revolutionary, Celia Sanchez, applying a bandage to the hand of a boyish-looking Castro, and Rather asks if he and the woman were lovers.

(For the record, Castro declines to answer -- suggesting that even Cuban dictators with scraggly beards have far more class than your average American anchorman.)

CBS News actually does stage a "This Is Your Life" reunion of Castro with three American men who as teen-agers had joined Castro's rebel camp in the Sierra Maestras before they eventually returned to the United States.

"They took with them their intimate knowledge of Fidel Castro and kept it secret -- until tonight," Rather says of the trio, hyping the reunion just before a commercial break.

It is hardly a surprise that the made-for-TV reunion falls considerably short of the build-up -- the men act pretty much like any middle-aged and older men you might see meeting at an airport: a little awkward but friendly. If any of the three has any "intimate knowledge of Fidel Castro," we are not privy to it.

The producers of "Oprah" and "Sally Jessie Raphael" do this sort of TV reunion thing much better on a daily basis and with considerably less tub-thumping.

What CBS News does well in "Portrait" is what it has always done well when it is on its game: get good pictures and write well for them. The most eloquent part of the hour comes when Castro is off-camera and Cuba is given center stage.

When the producers use archival film and current videotape to contrast the Cuba of President Fulgencio Batista in the 1940s and '50s with Castro's Cuba today, the tiny, exotic country so close to our borders comes alive. It is simplicity itself to see the changes Castro, Communism and Russian foreign aid have made. It is also easy to see the effects of the decades-old embargo imposed by the United States, as ancient Studebakers and Nash Ramblers rumble down the avenues of Havana.

When the old CBS News style of delivery -- Edward R. Murrow's "This is London," for instance -- and the blunt, almost melodramatic documentary style of writing, which CBS News seems to have invented, match the images, the effect can be electric.

"Portrait" has such a moment. As the camera luxuriates in the green glory of the mountains where the young Castro made his base camp, Rather steps forward and says, "This is where the man became a myth, talking and shooting his way to center stage almost 40 years ago." Castro and his followers "took a dream and made it life," Rather adds.

But one moment does not great journalism make. In the final analysis, "Portrait" lacks a point of view. Castro says he thinks he should be compared to Jesus. CBS News finds critics, including Castro's own sister, who say comparisons to Stalin are more apt.

Rather and the producers give us almost no help in negotiating between the two poles. They are far more interested in the likes of Celia Sanchez and playing "This Is Your Life, Fidel."

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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