While likely to irk those on either extreme — expats and conservatives who equate Castro with Hitler (as one does here), or those who consider Cuba the embattled last socialist utopia — “Shoot Down” does an admirably evenhanded job examining circumstances that led to two U.S. civilian planes being shot down by Cuban military aircraft 11 years ago. Cristina Khuly’s documentary merits fest, educational, DVD and broadcast exposure, particularly while its hot-button issues have again been warmed to boiling point by Castro’s failing health.
Four Miami men died in the two planes shot down on Feb. 24, 1996. Three were first-generation Cuban-Americans, born to parents who’d been among the island’s deposed economic/ethnic elite and fled after the revolution. Another was a refugee who owed his life to Brothers to the Rescue, for which they all volunteered. Org was founded in 1990 to help thin-stretched U.S. Coast Guard and border-patrol personnel save Cubans who often perished at sea (an estimated 24,000 between 1990 and 1998) negotiating the 90-mile passage to Florida coast.
Brothers to the Rescue’s mission changed with U.S. policy in 1994.
Seemingly to antagonize the White House, an economically embargoed Castro allowed “boat people” (sometimes traveling via raft, or even innertube) to emigrate en masse. Resulting huge influx led newbie President Clinton to approve legislation stripping arrivals of hitherto automatic political-refugee status. They were now considered economic refugees who’d have to prove need for asylum on a case-by-case basis — leaving most vulnerable to deportation.
Brothers and co-founder Jose Basulto then turned to explicit anti-Castro activities, even dropping propagandic leaflets directly over Havana. Both Cuban and U.S. governmental authorities warned the org that its planned trips on Feb. 24 (Cuban Independence Day) would dangerously pile insult upon offense. The two nations have since differed on whether Brothers’ planes crossed international airspace into Cuba’s own. Basulto claims not — but evidence suggests his was the only plane to do so, while two others were shot down in neutral waters.
In contrast to the oft-hysterical anti-commie tone of Florida Cubanos in news and documentary reports, interviewees here are for the most part emotional but level-headed. Basulto alone does not come off as a sympathetic figure.
Computer animation vividly re-creates the flight paths of the doomed planes. Overall assembly is workmanlike.