`Fidel' basks in the glow of myth

Preview: The Showtime docudrama is a pretty nifty take on the Cuban leader, even if it plays fast and loose with dialogue and characters.

January 26, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Is it real history or only a docudrama, make-believe, TV moment?

That's the question I kept asking myself during Fidel, an ambitious and spirited Showtime miniseries on the life of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. As entertainment, politics, mythmaking and culture, I was fascinated by this four-hour film. As history, though, it often felt like Swiss cheese, right down to the producers' disclaimer that they made up dialogue and characters for "dramatic purposes."

Take the morning-after scene in government headquarters on Jan. 8, 1959, the day after Castro and his triumphant revolutionaries marched into Havana and took control of the country. In the scene, Castro and his key soldiers, including the legendary Che Guevara, sit around a lavish conference table in battle fatigues and set up a new government. Castro reads a telegram from directors of the National Bank of Cuba, who urgently want to meet with his economist.

"Who's a good economist?" Castro asks his comrades.

"Che, give it to Che," one says.

"Economist? No, no, I don't know anything about banking," Guevara says.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you said, `Who's a good communist?' " says the soldier who recommended Guevara, smiling at the wordplay.

"Sure, if we can't give them a good economist, we give them a good communist." Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, says, as the group breaks into raucous laughter.

It's a nifty anecdote, but it sounds a tad apocryphal, doesn't it? It's easier to swallow, though, than a scene from the day before that featured a dove alighting on Castro's shoulder as he addressed a huge crowd in Havana. I'm all for symbolism in my miniseries, but having the dove sit there through most of a fiery speech strained credibility just a bit.

That said, Fidel still is intriguing in many ways, starting with a Latino cast dominated by new faces. Both Victor Huggo Martin, who plays Castro, and Gael Garcia Bernal, who plays Guevara, come out of the Mexican film and television industry. Both deliver strong enough performances to make the case that Hollywood casting directors are lying when they claim the talent simply isn't there for more diverse onscreen depictions; they just aren't casting their nets far enough.

Fidel was filmed in Mexico, with Latino talent behind the cameras, and it's generally a first-rate production. The story of the revolution itself is told especially well, with big scenes, powerful music and a pacing that generates real momentum to Castro's march out of the mountains and into Havana.

The film also is fascinating in its depiction of Castro up to and through the revolution as the classic hero on a mythic Hero Quest. This is not Castro, the bad guy, of most U.S. media.

In Part 1, which airs tomorrow night, Castro is mythologized the way John F. Kennedy was in PT 109, the account of JFK's days commanding a boat in the Pacific during World War II. The Cuban revolution and much of the bloodshed it wrought are portrayed as justifiable, with the CIA as the bad guys.

Some U.S. viewers might not like this depiction, and it helps to know that the film also may air in Central and South America. You don't have to be that good an economist - or communist - to see how global market considerations affected the way the saga of Fidel Castro's life is told on Showtime.

Fidel

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: Showtime

In brief: Culturally fascinating, historically suspect docudrama.

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