`Fidel' gives little away

TVPreview

April 14, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Fidel Castro and Oliver Stone - together again. And this time, it looks as if HBO is actually going to air their meeting.

Looking for Fidel, which premieres at 8 tonight, is a sequel to an interview titled Comandante - a documentary based on interviews Stone conducted with Castro in Havana. Don't remember it? It was pulled from HBO's schedule last year.

Now Stone, the Academy Award-winning director of such controversial films as JFK and Nixon, is trying again.

While Looking for Fidel, still has more in common with propaganda than it does journalism, its timing is better than Stone's last effort. Against the backdrop of a fierce national debate about how a free society can best deal with terrorism, the program offers a vivid snapshot of how terrorists are handled in countries without our constitutional guarantees.

Last spring - when the first documentary was scheduled to air - Cuba had been hit with a wave of hijackings. As soon as Castro had three of the hijackers in custody, he wasted no time making a chilling example of them. Their public trial lasted seven days. On the eighth day, they were shot.

Stone, who's able to manipulate emotionally charged political imagery as well as anyone since Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, includes grainy film of a prisoner's body exploding as bullets enter his body. There's no way to be sure the exploding body belongs to one of the hijackers, but that's the Stone way: Forget about ferreting out literal truth. Focus on stirring gut reactions.

In JFK, Stone used such editing to weave a dazzling web of conspiracy theory that stretched from Cuban exiles in Miami, to oilmen in Dallas and CIA operatives in Washington - all allegedly working together to assassinate a president. The CIA logo and pictures of Air Force One somehow find their way into Looking for Fidel, and they are so at odds with the rest of the words and pictures that one wonders if Stone was hoping Fidel would tell him who was responsible in 1963 for killing John F. Kennedy.

After HBO pulled Comandante, Stone returned to Cuba ostensibly to make a tougher film. Images of exploding bodies and brief interviews with critics are used to bolster the impression that he is taking a harsher look at Castro. Instead they merely serve as a prelude to what the director clearly sees as the main event: his interviews with Castro. Most of Looking for Fidel is a two-person play starring Castro and Stone - not necessarily in that order.

Dressed like a CIA operative in khaki suit, shirt and tie, Stone gets almost as much on-camera time as Castro. He speaks with urgency - often interrupting Castro's translator - as though grilling the comandante. But Castro, a master of propaganda turns question after question to his advantage.

"Allow the fact, that however bad a man is in America, we put him through a long appeal process [before execution], he has access to his family," Stone says challenging the seven-day trial and eighth-day execution.

"But he talks as though we live in an ideal world," Castro replies, reaching across a desk to stick his index finger almost in Stone's chest. "I ask you this: How many visits [by family] have been paid to the nearly 800 people locked up in that special prison at the Guantanamo Naval Base?"

As the screen fills with images of prisoners arrested in the wake of 9/11 by U.S. authorities on immigration violations, Castro drives home his point. Stone bows his head as if cowed by its sheer power. "For two years they have been there, and not one has been visited by their relatives," Castro continues.

While students of Cuban history and old hands at the CIA's Cuba desk may find value in this extended conversation with an aging Castro, in the end, he gives little away. Stone shows the staged rallies and such moments of Marxist theater as Castro bringing jailed dissidents and hijackers together for a conversation about their crimes (as well as their faith in the fairness of Cuban "justice").

Nothing in this film is more apparent than Stone's inflated sense of himself as a skilled interviewer who mines depths beyond the reach of mainstream journalism. But "dupe" is the word that a good Marxist like Castro would probably use to describe his co-star's efforts.

On TV

What: Looking for Fidel

When: Tonight at 8

Where: HBO

In brief: HBO indulges Oliver Stone's fascination with Fidel Castro.

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