638 Ways To Kill Castro Review
Stephen Pile, in his Book Of Heroic Failures, wrote that the least successful assassination attempts in our history were perpetrated upon Fidel Castro, who, given their lack of success, remains as leader of Cuba. A poisoned milkshake, rather than being stored in a fridge, was placed in a freezer instead and proved impossible to drink. Three men carrying a bazooka were arrested whilst crossing a university campus while an explosion missed Castro entirely but took out many of the traffic lights in Havana. The CIA did also try exploding cigars before sending a female assassin to Havana to serve Castro a poisoned meal. She, however, fell in love with him.
638 Ways To Kill Castro is not a comedy. Neither is it a look at very many of those 638 unsuccessful ways that the CIA and others tried to kill Castro. Instead, this documentary goes some way to describing who Castro is, why so many people might want to kill him and why a country that neighbours Cuba would be so hypocritical as to say that it will never knowingly harbour any terrorist while doing just that. To Pile's frozen milkshake, 638 Ways To Kill Castro adds a poisonous ballpoint pens and a radio studio filled with gas. To the long list of those defending Castro, it adds Fabian Escalante, who places a hefty folder on his desk whilst claiming that it contains details on over 600 attempts on Castro's life. At first, it was only the bungled attempts by the CIA that Escalante had to concern himself with but very soon, he also had to be wary of the many Cuban exiles entering Cuba. Eventually, Escalante had to turn his attention to the US and to the actions of exiles against Cuba's economic interests, including, most famously, the bombing of Cubana Flight 455 on 6 October 1976 in which all seventy-three passengers and crew were killed.
The setting up of the story allows for a very brief history of the Cuban revolution. Castro and Che Guevara are discussed in some detail, not least the killing of the latter in Bolivia and the publicity surrounding his death. Then alone, Castro remained in Cuba but rather than painting an altogether flattering picture of the man, 638 Ways To Kill Castro shows how Castro was unrepentant in rooting out those he considered enemies of the state. The film includes shocking footage of a police officer from the pre-revolution days being executed by firing squad.
That, however, is not what the film is interested in. We have had much the same story about Castro for fifty years or thereabouts, often with Jim Fitzpatrick's famous printing of Alberto Korda's photograph of Che Guevara alongside it. 638 Ways To Kill Castro is much more interested in the would-be assassins, their attempts to kill Castro and how proud they are, in spite of their Catholic faith, to have been a part of a plot to murder. One such killer is Antonio Veciana who was close to killing Castro on three occasions but failed in each of his efforts. He now runs a marine supplies store in Miami but remains proud of what he did. And so too are his sons and grandchildren. Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch are both now living in Miami are shown to be keen landscape painters but 638 Ways To Kill Castro never lets the viewer forget what it is these men are accused of. In particular, Carriles and Bosch are thought to have been the men behind the bombing of Cubana Flight 455 and the film, as well as writer Ann Louise Bardach who is interviewed, explains the hypocrisy between what Presidents George and George W Bush say and their attitude towards suspected terrorists Carriles and Bosch, all, it would appear, to ensure Jeb Bush remains on the side of the Cuban Americans living in Florida.
One of George W Bush's more famous declarations regarding the war on terror was that, "If anybody harbours a terrorist, they're a terrorist...I can't make it any more clearly [sic] to other nations." Bardach notes that when Bosch re-emerged in 1989 and was arrested for a parole violation, Republican politician Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was then running for a seat in Florida and was being assisted by a young advisor called Jeb Bush, began a campaign to free Orlando Bosch. Despite protests from the US justice department, even from Bush's own Attorney General who described Bosch as a terrorist, Bush granted Bosch a pardon. Bosch, when interviewed, is unrepentant, claiming that it wasn't just Cubana 455 but two other flights as well as firing a bazooka at a ship in Miami that was bound for Cuba. He admits that he should deny any involvement but, as he figures it, he's proud of his actions. There are more level heads, such as former US diplomat Wayne Smith, who says, "We're unable to deal rationally with Cuba." The film makes the point that little Cuba is cast as the David to the US's Goliath by America itself, which has been the case over the last fifty years.
638 Ways To Kill Castro isn't a very long film but makes its points very well and with no small amount of style. Certainly, it's heavily influenced by Adam Curtis, not least The Power Of Nightmares, but it has a voice all of its own and though it is, in its showing of Cuba in a very flattering light, partisan and that may put some off. However, it is entertaining, has some insight but ends on an odd note, saying that Castro will now be allowed to die naturally. After 638 attempts on his life, I doubt if his enemies are preparing to give up just yet.
Originally shown on Channel 4, 638 Ways To Kill Castro is not a particularly impressive-looking documentary although it has moments when its use of archive footage really does stand out. Typically, though, it's a fairly dry-looking documentary with a mix of footage taken in Havana, Miami and, with the many interviews featured in the film, in various hotel rooms, studios and Miami homes. However, the DVD transfer is generally fine throughout. It's not a particularly sharp film and there's very little detail outside of the Dream On-styled archive clips but it's a film in which what is being said is much more interesting than how it is being said. So if 638 Ways To Kill Castro is only a very ordinary-looking DVD release, it does help that it tells a great story. Similarly, the DD2.0 is nothing special but there is very little background noise, everything sounds pretty good and there's a nice use of background music to jolly the tone of a film about murder. However, what is worth saying is that the film is subtitled throughout as are the bonus features.
Interview With Dollan Cannell (27m11s): Director Cannell, who appears sitting in front of an editing suite just to let us know that he really is a director, takes us through the background to the film and a brief overview of many of the points made by the film. In describing the finding of a book while on holiday in Cuba, which detailed many of the six-hundred-plus assassination attempts, he talks about why the film was made before going on to answer questions on the would-be assassins, why they tended towards failure and why there is a sense of pride in Miami as to these attempts.
Interview with Jimmy Carter (12m28s): Yes, that Jimmy Carter. This interview, which was not used in the film, allows the ex-president to talk about the US foreign policy as regards Cuba during his time in office and in the years afterwards. Granted, he does tend towards flattering his own time in office, largely blaming Castro for failing to have diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, and damns those Republican presidents thereafter, particularly George W Bush but he sets out his case well
Interview with Miami Detective (8m06s): Not just any old Miami detective but one involved in the arrest of a number of Cuban exiles who found those he'd just brought in having access to some of the very best attorneys. Under interview, one of his arrests admitted to a knowledge of the bombing of Cubana 455 with this interview detailing what happened thereafter, being a detective who suddenly found himself learning what had happened to the flight but unable to do very much about it.
Interview with Ricardo Alarcon (3m34s): Alarcon is President of the Cuban National Assembly and given that his interview is described as being on Luis Posada Carriles and George Bush's war on terrorism, it's fair to say that he takes his three-and-a-half minutes to explain the hypocrisy inherent in the situation. With Bosch and Carriles being harboured by the US, he does have a case. And he knows it, making it several times.
Interview with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (1m22s): Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican Congresswoman for Florida and denied ever having said that she would welcome the assassination of Fidel Castro, perhaps thinking that a politician and Christian ought not to be so willing to embrace the murder of a world leader. Unfortunately, what she says is, "I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people." And she says it here.
Interview with Tom Parrott (8m06s): Parrott was the secretary for a secret American policy group in the 1960s with a special interest in Cuba. Parrott reveals the occasional moments of insanity in their plotting, such as an idea to make Castro's beard fall out, to have him discovering an exploding seashell, the poisoning of a shipment of sugar, exploding cigars and the claim that Castro was the Antichrist. He even affords himself a laugh when he remembers the plan to fire star shells just on the horizon and to report to Cuba that this was a message from God. Parrott doesn't look as though he took any of this very seriously, less so when Bobby Kennedy appeared to take the Castro situation personally, often losing his temper with the various failures to kill the Cuban leader.
Interview with Richard Goodwin (4m00s): Goodwin was a speech writer and advisor to John F Kennedy and after showing us many of the photographs on the wall, talks about Kennedy's problem with Cuba but admits the president could not have done anything more than he did. There is, however, a cryptic comment that there were others in administration who mentioned executive action, being a euphemism for assassination.
Interview with Otto Reich (6m32s): Reich is a Cuban-American politician and has held positions under Presidents Reagan and George W Bush. Bush appointed Reich as assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, which included Cuba and South America but is perhaps more famous for his assisting Orlando Bosch in his bid to enter the US and gain a pardon via Jeb and George W Bush. That is touched upon here and nor indeed is very much. Reich is too skilled to allow himself be caught by the questions set by the interviewer.