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There once was a time when a film about Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro would have been too hot to handle even with oven mitts, but not now.

Fidel Who?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar

Fidel was simultaneously marginalized and centered in the eye of the storm of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. His Communist country has sat for 50 years only 90 miles from Florida. It’s been a thorn in the side of 9 US presidents. Yet at the end of the 20th Century, Fidel ended up the last man standing. The “Red” pepper depicted in this film has long lost its zing, leaving at heartburn on the Right and a sweet aftertaste on the Left.

Director Saul Landau traveled to Cuba in 1968 and filmed Fidel Castro for a week as he traveled on an extended photo-op tour around the Cuban countryside. It’s a propaganda junket, but no Potemkin farce, and Fidel is shown getting an earful from lots of fellow Cubans.

Though he is clearly coming from the left, Landau is not Castro’s apologist. He won’t demonize Fidel, and he is certainly not Castro’s Riefenstahl. Rather, Fidel!is a straightforward documentary, and therein lies the problem. The political incorrectness of not showing Castro with horns and a pitchfork would have been enough to assure obscurity for Fidel!for years to come in the West.

But does that make any difference now?

A Brief History

Like Fidel Castro, Cuba keeps popping up in US history. It just won’t go away. So maybe a short history of U.S.-Cuban relations is in order.

Before the U.S. Civil War, there was a movement afoot in the Southern states for U.S. expansion into the Caribbean. (Its proponents were called “filibusters,” a term that lives on in Congress today.) In 1898 the U.S. invaded Cuba ostensibly to free it from Spain but mainly to secure U.S. control over the island and to some extent fulfill the antebellum Southern dreams.

In 1959 the leader of Cuba, U.S.-backed General Batista, was overthrown by revolutionaries led by Fidel, his brother Raul, and Che Guevara. Initially Fidel was greeted as a hero in the U.S. and might have stayed that way had he not nationalized U.S.-owned property in Cuba. After that, the official U.S. policy was to destabilize the Cuban revolution through regime change (or terrorism, depending on your point of view.)

The climax came with an failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Castro turned to the Soviet Union for military aid and then found himself hosting Soviet IRBMs (shorter range versions of ICBMs) pointed at the U.S. That was more than U.S. President Kennedy could stand, which resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The dust had no sooner settled from that face-off when Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. That event spawned the mother of all modern conspiracy theories, and whomever you believe, the name of Cuba comes up every time. Oswald was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and fingers have been pointed at the Cuban ex-pat communities in the U.S.: the CIA who got burned at the Bay of Pigs, the mob who lost their action in Havana, the Cuban connection list goes on. By 1968, all you had to do was just say “Fidel” and you could get an ill-tempered buzz from both the Left and the Right.

Meanwhile, Back in the Present

Today the Cuban revolution is 50 years old. Fidel is still alive but has stepped down and been succeeded by his brother Raul. Though the U.S. embargo is still in place, tourism is on the rise. The Cuban revolution is over and yet it’s about to begin again. Will Cuba go the way of China, or Viet Nam, or it’s old sponsor Russia? A point Landau emphasizes in his commentary is that Cuba and Fidel Castro survived not only assassination attempts and the ongoing U.S. blockade, but more significantly the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. They’ve made it so far on their own, where will they go from here?

This is not a great documentary or even great filmmaking but I can recommend it as a rewarding film to watch, particularly while listening to Landau’s 2008 commentary. Modern viewers will be also interested in seeing the young Che Guevera who seems to be back in ironic and iconic fashion.

Fidel!is still history, and it is history in the making.

DVD Extras

There is an excellent director’s commentary, recorded in 2008. There is also a short documentary from 1974 by Landau, Fidel + Cuba. There is also an on-camera 2008 interview with Landau.

Picture and Sound

Sound quality is very good, but the picture is often blown out. Of course, the amazing thing is not that the film was overexposed but that it was shot at all.

How to Use This DVD

Unless you are a Cuban history buff, watch Fidel! with the director’s commentary. I think the real value of this DVD is what Landau has to say today, rather than what Castro said 40 years ago.