A man I know once spent three days interviewing Fidel Castro. This was in 1964. “It was like washing your hands in Niagara” was how he describes the experience. Watching “The Fidel Castro Tapes,” the viewer knows what my friend means. Prepare to be doused. The hourlong documentary airs Thursday on Channel 2.
Producer-director Tom Jennings has assembled news footage from throughout the Cuban dictator’s career, extending back to his 1953 assault on the Moncada Barracks, in Santiago de Cuba. There are no talking-head experts, no narrative overview. The words all come from Castro, or the journalists reporting on him, at a given moment in time. The result, lively and assured, is a retrospective look that remains in the moment.
Maybe sheer longevity is the most remarkable thing about Castro’s remarkable career. A man who could have been killed many times over turned 88 last month and has spent half a century being one of the most recognizable people on the planet. Among world leaders today only Queen Elizabeth has been on the global stage longer. And Elizabeth never nearly precipitated nuclear Armageddon, as Castro did, thanks to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Nor has she ever been seen in military fatigues, smoking cigars, or with a bushy beard. That’s not an irrelevant point. Part of what has made Castro such a compelling figure, both pro and con, has been the distinctiveness of his appurtenances and appearance. It’s impossible to agree upon Castro as a historical figure. Hero or villain? Liberator or tyrant? Noble visionary or villainous buffoon? He’s some of each. It’s impossible not to pin him down — it’s unavoidable, actually — as regards style and look. Like any born performer, he instinctively understood the importance of costume and props.
The several times in the documentary one sees Castro looking un-Castro-like, it comes as a shock. In a business suit, he appears diminished as well as different. And it’s hard to say which is more startling: to see a young Castro who’s clean-shaven or to see him, slightly later, with mustache but no beard. Least Castro-like of all is hearing him speak English, which he does surprisingly often over the course of the documentary. It’s both funny and touching to hear him quote “Give me liberty or give me death.” He attributes it to Henry Adams, though, not Patrick Henry.
“The Fidel Castro Tapes” follows its subject’s career chronologically. “The bearded, cigar-smoking idealist,” as he’s described in a January 1959 NBC News report, soon enough becomes the Communist dictator who has obsessed US presidents longer, and more maddeningly, than any half-dozen other foreign leaders combined. The documentary doubles as a history of US-Cuban relations, inevitably touching on the trade embargo, Bay of Pigs invasion, missile crisis, 1980 Mariel boat lift, and 2000 Elián González controversy.
Castro never leaves center stage. We see him kissing a beauty queen, laying a wreath at the foot of Lincoln’s statue in the Lincoln Memorial, shaking hands with then-Vice President Richard Nixon, and cutting sugar cane. In a separate clip, an English television reporter (wearing tie and dress shirt!) takes a machete to a sugar cane stalk. “Made it in one,” he burbles of his single-stroke success. “You know,” he adds, only semi-facetiously, “that could cost me my American visa.”
Strenuousness is part of the Castro mystique. Besides harvesting sugar, he lifts weights, does sit-ups, throws a baseball — sidearm — and strikes a hitter’s stance, holding a bat. Celebrity is part of the Castro mystique, too. We see him with Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev, George McGovern, (they’re eating ice cream cones), with his arm around a smiling Gabriel García Márquez.
Barbara Walters interviews him, as does Maria Shriver. The latter segment may be the most memorable in the documentary. Shriver asks if Castro was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, her uncle. The question clearly flusters him. More characteristic is his unfazed response during a 1995 interview at the United Nations. Mike Wallace asks about the absence of democracy in Cuba. “We have discovered other formulas,” Castro replies. Is the answer more delusional or disingenuous? Either way, it’s impossible to imagine anyone delivering it with greater aplomb.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.