Oliver Stone: Comandante (2003) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
31May/130

Oliver Stone: Comandante (2003)

Oliver Stone takes a break from fiction to spend three days interviewing Fidel Castro as he goes about Cuba in Comandante.Poppa C is gonna make it all okKyle Commentary BannerComandante is wonderful propaganda, and I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. Stone forecasts his film as such from the earliest frames as a sort of response to the anti-Castro propaganda of the U.S. during the Communist hysteria of the '50s and '60s. The title sequence of the movie takes this form, looking like something from a newsreel with pulpy typeface and crashing dramatic music as “Comandante” wipes boldly across the screen.

While we do get occasional glimpses of real propaganda films from the '60s scattered throughout, Stone's approach is a bit more subtle, preferring mostly recorded conversation to do the work of the movie. Make no mistake, this about as one-sided as it gets—aside from a few very gentle questions on controversial events or policies (none of which ever involve more pressing or detailed follow ups), Castro is essentially given the stage to appeal to the audience for the entire running time. As a complex and nuanced look at a major and divisive figure, the movie would fail miserably, but Stone's goal—in certain ways more interesting—is to simply let the man present himself without a critical lens (or at least to make it seem this way). I have no doubt that he wants to portray Castro in a surprising and positive light, and he's a good enough filmmaker that his efforts to deliberately play into Castro's own manipulation of the audience make for interesting meta-viewing.

There are times where Castro is not only very convincing, but also very likeable. He comes off as a soft, almost naïvely humble man whose genuine goal is moving his country forward. There are other times, mostly later in the film, where this carefully cultivated persona risks cracking as his answers to Stone's questions become more vague and politician-speak starts to slip in more heavily. As soon as he is presented with a question that may lead into darker territory, he amps up the “what, me?” gentleness and deflects.

The interesting thing about the film is more how Stone takes a man who was once considered a prominent threat to America and paints him in a light where this idea seems utterly ludicrous. Scenes like one where Castro opens a box he “used to carry a gun in” to find candy inside, which he offers to the crew, are as funny as they are manipulative — showing the man's ability to engage in a friendly way with the film crew, people they meet in the streets, etc. proves nothing under any critical scrutiny, but, well, dammit he seems like such a nice guy.

It also helps that Stone has a likeable and significant screen presence when we see him, because to some extent that makes the illusion that we're seeing the “real” Castro more believable. A transcript of the more politically focused conversations would read like a timid student interview for a college newspaper—but with the careful ordering of scenes, the way we're introduced to Castro not as a political figure but as a nice old man, and the way Stone plays with editing as a distraction during his answers, we're pushed to take everything as a casual conversation between friends, and all the more trustworthy.

None of this is in support or condemnation of Castro, because again, the movie isn't interested in providing a full or complex enough picture of the man to have an argument one way or the other. But in posing as an effort simply to give him a platform to present himself, it becomes an interesting document.Still a poet, or so he saysAndrewCommentaryBannerYou and I have almost identical opinions about this film.  That said, there are a few things that you didn't touch on that I feel put an interesting spin on all the "Castro, yay!" sentiment that seems to be in the film.

This is a fabulously entertaining, if not exactly enlightening, documentary.  I had no idea how the film was going to keep up the exquisite pairing of past and present Castro that we see in the first twenty minutes, clipping along at a breathless pace with his commentary from today.  Well, the film can't, and this is where talking about the artifice and the truth becomes a tricky proposition and one that Stone navigates exquisitely.

I loved that Stone included the little fictional scene from background preparation to shooting of the young aide that brings documents for Castro to sign.  Stone takes the staging seriously, Castro acts as though this is reality, and the young aide can barely stop smiling.  Moments like this highlight just how much all politics, not just that of Castro and his Cuban contemporaries, is artifice and staging - something that Stone continues to highlight throughout the film.  What made those first twenty minutes so amazing was how upfront Castro was about the pomposity of his place but never for a second yielding that any of it is tactical positioning.

It's the factual information, or as close to fact as we can get anyway, that ended up bringing me back down.  If this were pure propaganda from start to finish it would be more entertaining but less interesting.  The curious bits come from the many times Stone questions Castro on topics that he holds completely different opinions on at the same time.  Stone sets up early on that this isn't a unique trait of older Castro, as a young revolutionary he both says that he would get up and start again if he lost the revolution and in the next moment says that if he does not succeed he will be dead and can do no more.

The questions Stone asks are sly in how they deflate the glorious leader.   Stone asks Castro about things like Hemingway (Castro says he would never kill himself then immediately follows that up with an example where he would), and education (where he boasts that even the prostitutes have degrees).  Most tellingly is when Stone asks him about his handling of homosexuality in his country and, while Castro glows about his record of encouraging acceptance, cuts to the most scared looking man in a pink tank top smoking a cigarette at a run-down gay bar.  Castro, it seems, completely forgot about the part where his country quarantined homosexuals with AIDS in the '80s and expelled them from the Communist party in the '70s.  Are things better today?  Significantly, but for all his talk of regretting his failures Castro sure seems to have difficulty discussing them.

I admire that Stone, who has a clear respect for Castro, still structured his film in such a way to cast many of Castro's speeches in doubt.  Yes, Castro is wonderfully human in some ways, especially in his multinational love of performers.  But there is the other Castro still chomping away in the shadows - the one who can say with a straight face that Cubans have never tortured anyone.Admiring an old man

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryPresenting such a divisive and oft-demonized (at least in the U.S.) figure as a humble, everyday sort of guy who just wants to do what's best is asking for controversy as much as is humanly possible. Adding to that is the fact that Stone basically fawns over Castro and not really interviewing him—something that undoubtedly causes outrage for those who'd like to hear him answer to any number of equally controversial allegations of human rights violations, hypocrisy, and abuse of power.

 

Tiny Andrew CommentaryI disagree that Stone fawns over him so much, it seems more like he's playing with the real constraints of interviewing the notorious leader who he does hold respect for.  With Castro avoiding the tough questions the film also avoids any real controversy.  If he had to answer any of those issues you outlined then we'd have fuel for a debate.  But he doesn't, so on he goes, jolly old Castro, just biding his time with his comrades.

 

Lover of art

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe movie plays into a constantly growing, though not by any means new, feeling that maybe the U.S. overreacted a little to the Cuban revolution.

It also, depending on how you judge its aim and effectiveness, may serve as a good example of modern audiences' tendency to consume media they know will confirm their existing views—it can't seem to stomach any disruptions to the persona Castro presents on-screen.

Tiny Andrew CommentaryGiven the subject, this is a movie that would probably cause more waves, if any, today than in 2003 when it was released.  We had a bit on our plate at the time and it's not like a HBO film about a director whose limelight had passed was going to make much of a splash.  But given the tendency of some folks to make frequent comparisons of our administration to communism and socialism I have to wonder if more people would have taken notice of the film's existence now instead of ten years ago.

 

One thing in this scene is real

That's fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryInteresting may be a better word. Stone is a master of form when it comes to his films, and here we get to see him trying to do a kind of cinematic magic trick: present a personality instead of a political profile, and see if he can't make viewers conflate the two. One of my favorite things, in retrospect, is that he starts the film by explaining that if at any time Castro says “cut,” the cameras stop rolling and they get to re-take the scene again. Not only is he pointing directly to his own manipulation of reality, but it also begs the question once all is said and done, what would Castro possibly have wanted to cut for? Maybe Stone's question about whether he saw Titanic? Maybe seconds later he admitted he was a huge Celine Dion fan?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryGood and interesting are synonymous in this case.  We both have read different things from Stone's handling of Castro and I do agree that it seems like there were few moments where Castro needed to assert himself.  There's enough going on around the edges of the questions and editing that casts a decent shadow on Big Poppa Castro.  It's good, but I suppose it's also the best we could get considering the circumstances.

Next week: Alexander!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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