Highly entertaining docu covers all bases when it comes to “The Cuban Game.” That would be baseball, of course, a national fixation that underlines both the connections and the divisions between the U.S. and Castro’s Cuba. Great-looking, carefully balanced pic could stand a few innings of theatrical play-off, especially in ball-mad cities, but it’s most likely to slide home with pubcasters worldwide. English-lingo narration could easily be subbed in time for a spot on PBS.
As compelling archival footage suggests, Cuba’s love affair with America’s pastime goes back to at least 1898, when Teddy Roosevelt was riding roughly against Spain, a cart full of bats and gloves following closely behind. The image of Cuban and American flags flying side by side isn’t repeated until a century later, when Cal Ripken’s Baltimore Orioles went to Havana for a show game that proved to be a lightning rod for emotions uniting the two nations, so mismatched in size and temperament.
That contest and a follow-up engagement in the States prove an effective framing device for this look back at shifting, frequently ambivalent attitudes over the years, with special attention paid to the early years of the revolution, when idealism ran highest among Castro’s disciples, as seen in the lyrically articulate athletes, intellectuals, artists and politicos (all men) interviewed here. Key to the period is 1966 Pan-American Games, in Puerto Rico, which found a boatload of Cuban athletes trying repeatedly to dock in San Juan, despite an increasingly rigid embargo placed by the United States — not to mention constant harassment by U.S. warplanes, seen in amazing footage from the time.
Spanish helmer Manuel Martin Cuenca makes the case that Yankee hard-headedness helped push Castro ever further into the Soviet camp. Furthermore Castro’s own obsessive identification with the sport — immediately after the revolution, he formed a team called the Beards — is seen as a window onto his doggedly competitive nature. Auds come away with the sense that he needed the U.S.’s enmity more than it needed his, despite the pride that many peloteros, or ball players, still feel for their country.