-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
638 Ways To Kill Castro |
featuring: Fidel Castro, Orlando Bosch, and Luis Posada Carriles
director: Dollan Cannell
140 minutes (E) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Get 'The Beard' growl a number of unnerving Cuban expatriates in this intriguingly whimsical
documentary dealing with America's 50-year obsession with Cuba and its straggly-bearded
cigar-chomping leader Fidel Castro. Featuring the usual collection of talking heads, interviews
and archive footage that has come to make up the modern documentary form, 638 Ways To Kill
Castro attempts to encompass both the chilling reality of the on-going fight against Castro
and the abject absurdity of some of the past assassination attempts. Unfortunately, the result
is not entirely successful.
On one level, this is a deeply amusing piece of documentary filmmaking. Dollan Cannell and his
team unearth some of the ludicrous but apparently genuine lengths to which both the CIA and
Cuban anti-Castro elements have gone in their attempts to "get The Beard." These
range from packing conch shells full of explosives to injecting his cigars with poison, and
attempting to spread the rumour that Castro is the Antichrist using a submerged submarine
firing flares into the night sky above the island. Aside from these whimsical cases, the film
also talks to a succession of Cuban freedom fighters who invariably were about to kill Castro
but all seemed to chicken out at the last moment because they realised that while they wanted
him dead, they didn't want him dead so much that they were willing to die or go to prison.
These two elements combine to give the attempts to kill Castro an amusingly amateurish feel
like some kind of spoof espionage thriller. However, while these events are undeniably humorous
and have therefore seemingly formed the basis for the film's identity (as expressed through the
whimsical menus, title and case cover), they are not really the meat of the film.
Where this film distinguishes itself from Discovery Channel-style documentaries is that it
manages to secure a number of remarkable interviews with some of the most brutal and zealous
participants in the war against Castro. Now all old men, the likes of Orlando Bosch and Luis
Posada Carriles have devoted their lives to the attempt to depose Castro, even going so far
as to blow up a Cuban airliner back in October 1976. Proud of their lives devoted to terrorism
and utterly unrepentant of their fanatical views, these old men are disturbing and chilling.
However, what is interesting about these people is the extent to which they appear to have the
support of the Cuban-American community in Florida and how this support and friendship even
extends as far as the Bush White House and both Bush senior and junior have evidently protected
these men from justice despite their crimes and histories as terrorists. So much for the "if
you harbour a terrorist, you're a terrorist" rhetoric, eh, George?
The problem with 638 Ways To Kill Castro is that, doubtless for the purposes of being
accessible, the film concentrates upon the comically inept assassination attempts, thereby
compressing the time devoted to the substantial issues raised by the nature of the war against
Castro. This regrettable editorial choice is evident from the fact that the DVD's substantial
and fascinating extras include both a rare interview with former US President turned statesman
Jimmy Carter, and an interview with one of the CIA agents that were part of the 'special group'
devoted to dealing with Castro. These two interviews effectively place the documentary's content
in both the wider context of US foreign policy and the context of office politics as, evidently,
the weirder plans to kill Castro were only thought up in order for the CIA to have something to
show Bobby Kennedy who was apparently baying for the blood of Castro.
Alternately chilling, whimsical and fascinating, 638 Ways To Kill Castro is one of the
better documentaries to appear on DVD in recent years. Despite its regrettable pandering to
lowbrow whimsy, it is comparable with Alex Gibney's 2005, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The
Room, both in terms of its underlying intelligence and its editorial decision to neuter
itself, redressed only by the fact that the DVD makes up for it by giving us a chance to see
the more thoughtful interviews that the director chose to cut. Warmly recommended and Viva