Make no mistake: filmmaker Dollan Cannell is not defending Fidel Castro's government in his documentary "638 Ways to Kill Castro." Instead, he looks with great fascination at the decades-long obsession with this single leader and his small island country. What is it about this man that has caught the eye of America for so long? And what is it about that obsession that led to such absurd reactions?
As you can gather from the title, Cannell reports on a claim from Cuban Intelligence that there have been over 600 attempts (of varying degrees) on Castro's life since he took power in 1959. The film, produced for the UK's Channel 4, has fun recounting such far-fetched spy-flick ideas as a cyanide capsule hidden inside a fountain pen, poisoned face cream, and yes, even an exploding cigar.
Yet this is only a portion of the story, the lighthearted icing atop more somber issues. Early in the film, we meet a man who knew Castro when both were young; slowly, as Castro grew to power, the old friend realized it was not for the better. The capper to these beliefs came when the new Castro government decided to televise executions, one of which is shown in this film. The man realized he must kill his old friend, yet ultimately could not find the nerve. He has spent his life since regretting that decision, thinking of how many lives have been lost since because he left Castro alive. This is a running theme of the film, the inability of the ordinary person to take a life. In theory, it seems so easy, but in reality, doubts fill one's mind.
The film also focuses on the evolution of America's fixation on Castro. At first, the government took the mission on themselves, and later it turned to members of the mafia for advice. After a while, the CIA realized its best bets were to train Cuban refugees to do the deed themselves. Indeed, Cannell finds many of these people living comfortably in Florida. Their stories are moving, but more to the point, their relationship with the U.S. government raises a peculiar question: why is a government known for denouncing terrorism so eager to support those that could in their own right be considered terrorists? Cannell discusses the hypocrisy that arises when a government finds it necessary to fudge ideas to fit within their own goals.
All of this is fascinating stuff, although Cannell trips too often with his inconsistent tone. Aiming for a Michael Moore style of documentary-with-attitude, the filmmaker zigzags between comedy and drama a bit too clumsily. The movie opens as a winking satire, a promise to be plenty fun in mocking the ridiculousness of exploding cigars and such. When the more serious fare arrives, it works, but the transitions are almost always just slightly off the mark. The individual bits all click quite well, but the flow to the story is jagged at best.
Still, it makes for some quick, breezy viewing, quite delightful, especially to those who enjoy similar talking-head history docs on, say, the History Channel.
Video & Audio
As with all documentaries of this sort, the image quality ranges from sharp to awful depending on the source material being used, although all flaws are forgivable. The video footage produced for this film looks pretty good, considering. Presented in the original 1.78:1 format, with anamorphic enhancement.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack gets the same marks: the new stuff is fine, and the older stuff gets a pass. Spanish dialogue is captioned with non-removable subtitles; no subs are offered for the rest of the film.
A 27-minute interview with Cannell details everything from the film's origins to the numerous factoids that couldn't fit within the movie itself. Presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen.
44 minutes of deleted interviews toss in plenty of bonus information, and one almost wishes some of this could have made it into the final film. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, these interviews feature: former president Jimmy Carter; investigator Luis Posada Carriles; Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly; Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; Tom Perrott of the CIA; Kennedy speechwriter Richard Goodwin; and Cuban-American politician Otto Reich.
Recommended to anyone with an interest in modern history and politics.