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PBS Home Video presents
American Experience: Fidel Castro (2005)

"Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me." 
- Fidel Castro

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: February 01, 2005

Stars: Fidel Castro
Other Stars: Richard Nixon, Leonid Brezhnev, Henry Kissinger, David Ogden Stiers
Director: Adriana Bosch

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:50m:33s
Release Date: February 01, 2005
UPC: 841887050128
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B+B+ D+

DVD Review

Fidel Castro has been in power in Cuba for close to fifty years now, longer than any head of state in any country in this and the previous century, and yet he remains an incendiary figure. You can count on one hand the countries that cling ardently to the tenets of socialism—in fact, after Cuba and the People's Republic of China, you may start scrambling to round out that list. Of course, so much of the motivating force behind the Cuban regime is not ideology, but rather the cult of personality of Fidel—he has been unquestioningly adored and widely reviled, and it's a pretty fair wager that the Communist experiment ninety miles off the coast of Florida will die when its leader does. And that doesn't appear to be happening any time soon.

Castro's is a life dense with detail, with change, with consequences and contradictions; when he finally passes, no doubt he'll be ripe for the Robert Caro treatment. This documentary cannot provide a high degree of depth about the man and his times, but it is a useful and well-produced overview, two hours crammed with information, context and perspective. Adriana Bosch's film chronicles Fidel's early days—he grew up on a sugar plantation, where his father was lord of the manor, his mother a maid. Castro attended the University of Havana, got married and honeymooned in New York, and became a leading figure in his country when he led the uprising against the Bautista regime—Castro did hard time in prison, then fomented his revolution from the Sierra Maestra mountains, where he and his band of rebels, which included Che Guevara, prepared to depose Bautista.

Images of the revolutionary Fidel are well known, but less familiar are his baby pictures and the shots of him growing up; the film also ably documents the burgeoning cult of personality around Castro, which began with the romanticization of his guerrilla war. As you might expect, the film dwells particularly on the periods just before and after the revolution, with particular time and attention spent on the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, and is candid on assessing the successes and gargantuan failures of the Castro regime. Universal health care is probably the best thing that Castro provided for the citizens of Cuba, but he also presided over decades of economic catastrophe, subservience to the Soviet Union, and the unwise, dangerous and expensive exportation of revolution to places like Angola and Nicaragua.

The documentary whips pretty quickly through the Mariel boatlift, the end of the Cold War and the demise of Cuba's principal benefactor, and where the country stands today; a good amount of time is rightly spent on the barbaric and well-documented human rights abuses in Cuba, against those termed enemies of the state. David Ogden Stiers narrates, and Bosch intercuts archival clips with contemporary interviews—the array of journalists, writers, Cuban exiles and others includes Castro's daughter and leaders of the émigré community; perhaps the best of these is Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on the Cuba desk.

Bosch ends on a note of regret—the promise of the revolution, the squandered opportunity, the unnecessarily difficult lives of most Cubans due to mismanagement (and worse) by the Castro regime. There's not a lot of psychobiography here; Castro has long kept his own counsel, and we're not privy to what makes him tick. But the film offers an artful and straightforward telling of the principal facts, without being overly didactic or doctrinaire.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A sharp and solid transfer; the new interview footage looks fine, and the archival clips are in surprisingly good condition.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: Nicely balanced, and you're always in good company with the smooth aural stylings of David Ogden Stiers.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. information on PBS Online
Extras Review: A featurette (08m:15s) offers reflections from director Adriana Bosch, an American of Cuban descent, and Mark Samels, from American Experience, the PBS series in which this documentary appeared. There's also a deleted sequences (04m:56s) on the current, sorry state of the Cuban economy.

Extras Grade: D+


Final Comments

A smart introduction to the life and times of one of the most incendiary and enduring figures on the world political stage.


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