High Fidel 

Showtime takes Castro seriously

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002

With Showtime‘s Fidel, Fidel Castro finally has his biopic. Compañero Che Guevara got his all the way back in 1969 -- a real Twentieth Century Fox Hollywood production, too, not just a TV movie. (All right, miniseries.) But Che was dead and handsome and hanging on the walls of ten thousand dorm rooms, like James Dean, and a revolutionary martyr to boot, where Fidel was by then just a dictator, a decade into his (so far) 43-year transitional one-party charismatic socialist government. Fidel had his part to play in Che!, of course, and as one of the world’s most recognizable figures -- his beard and cigar and military headgear make him as iconically familiar as Charlie Chaplin -- he has often appeared as a character on screens large and small, for purposes dramatic or comic, but mostly as a secondary player or cameo or dark offscreen presence. Now he‘s ready for his close-up. Que viva la revolucion, Mr. De Mille!

It is not impossible to make good movies about real people. Lawrence of Arabia, Reds, Bonnie and Clyde spring quickly to mind, but these are art films, more or less, made by serious filmmakers (with serious money), out to communicate something more than the outlines of a lived life; they have things to say about the world, or the ways that people live in it, that while obviously not unrelated to their illustrious subjects, do not entirely depend upon them. The old old Hollywood biopictorial tradition, out of which few great but many enjoyable films came, was to slight history and invent as necessary, or even unnecessary, in order to entertain. No one actually expected these movies to tell the truth (in the prosaic, “factual” sense of the word). We live now, however, on the far side of docudrama, of “dramatic re-creation” meant to put the viewer in a Time and Place, and to treat qualities not of humanity at large, but of a particular person (or persons). And while this attitude may be the more respectful -- indeed, the makers of Fidel felt it necessary to introduce their film with a kind of mea culpa for composite characters and invented dialogue -- it does not usually make for a sophisticated, successful film. (And it’s not usually good history, either.)

Castro, an enigma wrapped in a tobacco leaf wrapped in a myth of his own tireless making, is a subject ripe for exploitation -- pardon, exploration -- especially now that Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders have made Cuba the stuff of public broadcasting and the Starbucks lifestyle. Written by Stephen Tolkin, who has adapted a couple of Dean Koontz thrillers for television and created last year‘s not-all-bad medical creep-show All Souls, and directed by David Attwood, who made the excellent Balkans-set Shot Through the Heart a few seasons back, Fidel does all right by its eponymous semi-antihero. If it doesn’t offer more than a cursory assertion of his Life Script (“He fought for freedom, he settled for power,” as the picture‘s promotional tag line runs), it at least does Castro the courtesy of taking him seriously: He’s represented as a principled if somewhat self-admiring man who, seduced if not wholly corrupted by power, outlives his usefulness to the people he‘ll continue to lead as long as he can keep talking -- and that, my friends, is a long time -- rather than as a scary, scruffy Osama bin Cuban. And it gives him back a little crazy sexy cool: He’s a fighter, he‘s a lover, he knows his way around a kitchen.

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It is neither the best nor the worst picture of its kind. It is limited, obviously, by budget, by running time, and by the narrowness of its own particular aspirations. But it is not stupid. Homework has been done. Everything here is streamlined and simplified, of course -- the politico-dramatic conflicts are not much more subtle or complex than that of your average Republic Western -- but certainly it is not the easiest subject to compress into four hours; Fidel gives speeches longer than that. (His famous five-hour “History will absolve me” courtroom summation is rendered briefly with passage-of-time dissolves, to mildly humorous effect.) If nothing else, Fidel may, in its CliffsNotes way, teach Mr. and Ms. North American Couch Potato and all the little spudlets a thing or two they likely did not know about modern Cuba; perhaps it will inspire them to read one of the books on which the movie’s based, to learn and think a little more.

The Girls of the Revolution were perhaps not all quite so fine as they are here; Fidel was perhaps not quite so sad to see Che leave for Bolivia; one wife (of two) and five children (of seven) are unaccounted for. But these are small things, and no more than one expects. Apart from a few distractingly threadbare crowd scenes, it‘s all quite watchable. And there is, notably, a fine cast, all of them -- for a change in a Hollywood film about Latinos -- actually Latino. (In Che!, Fidel was played by Jack Palance and Che by Omar Sharif.) Except for Tony Plana, who plays dictator Fulgencio Batista and whom you have seen four dozen times before (he’s currently starring in Showtime‘s Resurrection Blvd.), they are not particularly well-known or known at all in Angloland. The greatest kindness the film does to Castro is certainly the casting of the enormously appealing Victor Huggo Martin, in his first English-language film role; he gives Fidel an attractive mix of softness and solidity, of intensity and impishness, that explains better than any of the lines he has to read why a person might follow a man happily down any number of bad roads.

“I like the beard,” says Supreme Court Justice James Garner to “new boy” Joe Mantegna in the first episode of First Monday, CBS’s new ultimate courtroom drama. “It reminds me of Che Guevara.” (Interestingly, Mantegna played Castro in the 1999 TV movie My Little Assassin.) The free-market television economy -- O wonderful thing! -- has brought us this West Wing--inspired judicial fantasy, and, as so often happens, ABC has a Supreme Court show of its own, The Court, with Sally Field, coming in spring. Though First Monday‘s court looks from afar something like our real-life own -- there’s a woman, there‘s an African-American (vibe more Thurgood Marshall than Clarence Thomas) -- the four-four conservative-liberal split, with Mantegna as just-appointed, thinks-for-himself, moderate-liberal swing vote, is more likely a product of that wishfully thought parallel universe in which Martin Sheen is president. The West Wing is a sentimental fantasy, too, to be sure, but it masks its baser impulses with snappy dialogue, breakneck pacing and a cast made up of the kind of character actors who disappear fully into their roles. (Rob Lowe, even.) Garner and Mantegna and fellow justice Charles Durning are bigger than their parts; not for a minute do you believe they’re who they‘re pretending to be, or a single thing they have to say. In this, the writers have not helped them. Mantegna is “humanized,” or one might say “regularized,” in his opening moments via the cute old dodge of his not understanding his teenage daughter’s slang (wack is the word at issue -- didn‘t that go out with “23 skidoo”?); more originally, he goes off to work forgetfully in his slippers. Garner, as the conservative chief justice, talks a lot about sports, to indicate that he has a Life. Durning gets a wheelchair for breadth of character. The first episode dealt with the death penalty, the second with abortion -- school busing is next, I guess. I won’t hold my breath waiting for one about media monopolies. Underpinning it all are the sex drives, low plots and high ideals of the various court clerks, all of whom are actor-pretty, and act like they‘re on TV. From the creator of Jag.

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