The Miami Herald
Jan. 28, 2003

Film director Oliver Stone takes on Castro


  PARK CITY, Utah - In the opening scene of the documentary Comandante, Oliver Stone asks Fidel Castro how he stays fit.

  The dictator, wearing trademark green fatigues, walks to a corner of his office and faces the camera. Castro checks his pulse, then begins walking brisk laps around his book-lined office.

  ''I am like a prisoner,'' Castro says of his devotion to running communist Cuba, ``and this is my cell.''

  The irony of the comment, made by a man who has imprisoned dissenters throughout his four-decade reign, is suggested moments later when a hand-held digital camera closes in on Castro's shoes.


  The leader of one of the world's last noncapitalist states wears Nikes.

  This visual cue -- coupled later by a cameraman's roll of the eyes and Stone's quizzical look after Castro blusters, ''I am a dictator to myself, a slave to the people'' -- is a moment of skepticism in an otherwise sympathetic portrait of America's longest surviving antagonist.

  It's not that Stone, the lightning-rod director of political dramas like JFK and Nixon and sociocultural commentaries like Natural Born Killers and Wall Street, doesn't ask the tough questions: on repression, on mortality, on nuclear war. And it's not that Castro refuses to answer.

  ''Evasions are in the eye of the beholder,'' Stone explained following Comandante's world premiere Jan. 18 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. ``With Mr.
  Castro it is hard to say what is evasive and what's not. And his elusiveness is always charming.''

  This charm is unambiguous throughout the 93-minute documentary, which airs on HBO in May and was culled from 30 hours of interviews over three days in February

  The 76-year-old dictator, appearing trim and mentally agile, tosses off references to American culture and Stone's career while avoiding personal questions and evading
  political ones.

  On watching the movie Titanic on video: ''I think it should be seen on the big screen.'' On President John F. Kennedy's assassination, the subject of JFK: ''I have never
  believed the theory of the lone gunman.'' On Stone's offer to smuggle Viagra into Cuba: ``So you want to kill the enemy with a heart attack.''

  ''Fidel is magnetic and charismatic,'' Stone said. ``He is a movie star.''

  Comandante will not be shown in the Miami International Film Festival, which runs Feb. 21 to March 2. The festival's new director, Nicole Guillemet, said she learned of the film after she had already finished programming the documentary portion of the festival, which includes a documentary on Cuban rafters called Balseros.

  Guillemet downplayed the cinematic importance of the Comandante, saying more than 70 films have featured Castro. Still, she recognized the film's potential to inflame
  the Cuban exile community and admitted it would have been a difficult movie to air in her first year as director.

  ''No one should go into any job to shock,'' Guillemet said. ``You program for a community, not for yourself.''


  Stone said he wants his audience, including exiles, to see Castro ''in a new light and as a person.'' The director's portrayal masterfully manipulates Castro's grace and wit for film, transforming a strong man and ideologue into a charming elder statesman.

  Comandante jumps from extreme close-ups of Castro's hands, beard and shoes to wide-angle shots of the film crew that, as Stone explained, got ''rid of the fourth wall'' to ``create an atmosphere where accidents are permitted.''

  At one point, Stone, stuffed in the back seat of a government-issue Mercedes with Castro and his official translator, begins rooting through the car.

  He finds a box of candies and a pistol. ''It's a good thing I didn't bring any secret papers with me,'' Castro says, marveling at Stone's audacity.

  While nonconfrontational -- Stone is careful not to look Castro in the eyes -- Stone can be a dogged interviewer, cutting the long-winded dictator short and asking about
  the various political crises that have spotted his lengthy career.

  ''You want to know everything,'' Castro says. ``It's difficult to escape his questions.''

  Despite Castro's charm and Stone's solicitousness, Comandante has moments of real discovery.

  ''I have not spent much time with my children,'' Castro admits at a lavish dinner with a son and grandson. ``Perhaps I am not a good father.''

  While Stone said he plans to make the raw footage available to scholars, Stone's intention with Comandante is clearly to entertain. He makes no attempt to show the
  desperation and poverty of the Cuba presented in Balseros, which follows seven rafters as they escape Cuba and later, after five years in the United States. Balseros
  screens at the Miami film festival at 10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Gusman theater and will be shown on HBO in late 2003.

  Instead, Stone dug for, and found, moments that delight and infuriate and, ultimately, rivet.

  ''One of the greatest benefits of the revolution,'' Stone induces Castro to say, ``is even our prostitutes are college graduates.''