Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This two-hour overview of Cuba's strongman is an excellent primer on Basic Fidel. Without a particular
bias, it tells his story as straight as possible from his youth as a pampered delinquent to his
days as a college activist, until his first run for political office that was cut short by Fulgencio
Battista's military coup in the early 1950s. Daring and resourceful, Castro was always able to inspire
rebels to flock to his side, even though his earlier bold insurrections tended to end with him alive and
many of his followers dead.
As is typical of American Experience documentaries, producer Adriana Bosch marshalls a battery
of compelling interviews from key witnesses - Fidel's surviving associates, interested academics and
even one of his own rebel commanders, who was imprisoned for treason after the revolution.
As revolutions go, Fidel's triumph in Cuba has to go down as the most beautiful of the 20th Century -
in the beginning. Starting with only a few men but the moral support of his entire country, in little
more than two years he forced the dictator Battista to flee for his life. The docu
identifies the turning points in the revolution and Castro's private life that changed what
could have been a great era into just one more sticking point in the Cold War. Virulently Anti-American,
Fidel refused to let his country's industries remain under Yankee control. Mass executions and harsh
crackdowns on political dissidents made it obvious that
his personally-directed New Cuba was going in a bad direction. And the docu illustrates point by point
Castro's growing relationship with the Soviet Union, a move partly motivated to antagonize Washington.
The docu makes it abundantly clear just how popular and charismatic Fidel was and to a certain
extent still is. His sincerity was never in doubt, but both his methods and his unwillingness to
confer real power among his associates point to a man who still must be ranked with despots and
dictators. His nationalist stand against America was courageous, and even in poverty
his island nation secured common benefits that not to be found here - universal health
coverage and quality free education. For better or worse, Fidel is the revolution and
has embodied his country for forty-five years.
On the other hand, the docu lets us know very clearly that even though Fidel is an inspirational
leader, he's also a ruthless despot. Black marks against him include his purges against his fellow
revolutionaries who were promised that Cuba would become a republic once again, and his poor handling
of international relationships beyond establishing his country as anti-American. As cagey a gamesplayer
capitalist trickster, Fidel abandoned his comrade Che Guevara and foolishly thought he could
manipulate the Soviet Union to his will. No matter how charismatic or sincere his public image may be, it's
impossible to maintain confidence in a leader who imprisons and kills so many opponents. Fidel gets
an A+ for his health and educational reforms and his nationalistic defiance of the U.S., and failing
grades everywhere else.
The docu doesn't skirt details and its portrait of Castro ends up far into negative territory. In the
late 1970s our own shifty gamesplayer Henry Kissinger actually moved to normalize relations
with Cuba and end the twenty-year stalemate ... but Castro felt it more expedient to bolster his
international status as a maverick Marxist by aiding Angolan rebels. That prestige didn't last long,
because when the Soviet Union invaded the non-aligned country of Afghanistan Castro had to remain
mute to protect his economic subsidies. The problem with Castro equating the fate of his country
with his personal destiny, is that Cuba suffered from his individual whims and failings. A tyrant is
a tyrant even when his root cause - independence from a domineering U.S. - is just.
Fidel Castro is such a hot-button topic that it's quite an achievement for the docu Fidel Castro to
present a balanced look at his accomplishments and his crimes. It's the best piece on the man
Savant has yet seen.
American Experience's excellent docu-bio on Fidel Castro is identified as a 2005 production
but the storyline ends after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Various references to Castro's
revolution being just over 40 years old may be audio revisions. The quality of the enhanced
widescreen image is fine, especially in the interview segments. Docu footage is cropped and blown up
and some of it is of the expected poor quality. The show stays away from most violent content but
there are some disturbing views of the dead of July 26 and one very explicit shot of an execution.
The disc comes with a bonus section of interview outtakes that allow more opinionizing from some of
the interview subjects. There's also an interview with the producer. The show is preceded by some
PBS-style promo-logos and a couple of sponsor ads. I frankly wish we had a broadcasting Castro to
come along and liberate PBS from its corporate overlords ... quality shows like American
Experience are becoming rare.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fidel Castro (PBS) rates:
Supplements: interview outtakes, producer interview
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 15, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson