NOTES

TV

I Castro outsmarts a Hollywood giant

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 29 2004
NOTES

TV

I Castro outsmarts a Hollywood giant

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 29 2004

TV

I Castro outsmarts a Hollywood giant

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Only a filmmaker with an ego as expansive as Oliver Stone’s could make a documentary about Fidel Castro and leave the impression that the director, rather than the dictator, is the one with the single-minded agenda. Digested from 30 hours of candid interviews that Stone conducted in Havana, Comandante (CBC Newsworld, Mar. 28, 10 p.m. EST/PST) offers an intimate and sympathetic portrait of the Cuban president—so sympathetic that HBO pulled the documentary from its schedule last spring after Castro jailed 75 dissidents and executed three men who had attempted to hijack a ferry. Comandante is well worth watching. Castro holds court with wisdom and wily eloquence on a variety of subjects, including his youth, his women, his children, Ernest Hemingway, Ernesto (Che) Guevara, the Cuban Missile Crisis, religion, homosexuality and the origin of the universe.

But as Stone follows Castro around, joshing with him as if he’s found a new best friend, the director is a smarmy, ingratiating presence. He’s also the master of the dumb question. When he asks Castro why he’s never seen a psychiatrist, a baffled Castro says, “It’s never crossed my mind.” Stone also upstages his subject with cinematic hijinks. He intercuts the interview with a dizzying blitz of archival footage and myriad camera angles, repeatedly zooming in on Castro’s eyebrows and fingernails. It makes you long for the clear, unobtrusive gaze of Errol Morris, the Zen-eyed director of The Fog of War. But Stone generates an extra, unintended layer of empathy for Castro—who seems so graceful and tolerant just for putting up with him.