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Fidel Castro (PBS)

Fidel Castro (PBS)
PBS / Paramount
"2005" / B&W & Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 120 min. / Street Date February 1, 2004 / 24.99
Cinematography Andrés Sanchez
Narrator David Ogden Stiers
Film Editor Jon Neuberger
Original Music Mason Daring
Co-producer Patricia Alvarado Nuñez
Written, Produced and Directed by Adriana Bosch

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 as any 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: interview outtakes, producer interview
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 15, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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