Oliver Stone plays the equal time game in “Looking for Fidel,” posing all the tough questions to Castro he somehow forgot to ask the first time around in his buddy-buddy act “Comandante.” HBO asked Stone to return for a follow-up interview with the Maximum Leader after the March 2003 executions of three hijackers and arrest of more than 75 Cuban political dissidents; “Comandante” had been criticized as too soft on the world’s longest-running dictator after its January Sundance premiere. Ironically, “Looking for Fidel,” designed as a corrective to its predecessor, emerges for the moment as the only view of its subject on the pay cabler, the original having been yanked from its initial spring 2003 air dates and never reskedded.
Stone’s comradely, confidential tone with Castro in “Comandante” sliced both ways, cutting the dictator a lot of slack on the one hand but serving to relax and open him up on the other. Once you accepted that the interrogator was never going to nail his subject with too many probing queries, result could be appreciated for its prolonged, wide-ranging portrait of an unavoidably important figure in 20th century politics.
This time around, Stone is all business; so to-the-point is his manner that it’s easy to pick up a subtext suggesting that the filmmaker couldn’t wait to get this obligatory assignment over with so he could move on to his epic project laying in wait, “Alexander.”
Sitting down across from Castro in very Mike Wallace fashion, Stone immediately confronts his host with the outrage of the international community over the brutality of Cuban justice in the cases of the hijackers and political opponents. Defending his actions as a proper response to “terrorism” and insisting he’d handle things just the same way if he had it to do all over again, Castro then indulges in a long-practiced habit of turning the negative spotlight away from his country and onto the United States, as he underlines the due process denied to the 800-odd prisoners held on his own island at Guantanamo Bay.
Of course, the U.S. remains Castro’s obsession and bete noire, the oppositional force that has fed his revolutionary fervor for nearly 45 years. But at this point, from an American point of view, Castro looks like yesterday’s enemy. A rare remnant of the collapsed Soviet empire, Castro can fulminate all he wants about alleged and real Yank belligerence, hypocrisy and so on, but the loquacious old rebel now reps a faded side show to the main event on the world stage and must know it.
How else to explain his willingness, first, to sit down once again with Stone, aware that he’ll be getting nothing but high and hard fastballs and, second, to participate in a genuinely weird hearing-cum-news conference at which eight subsequent hijackers, who are about to be tried, air their grievances (all economic/opportunity oriented) and propose what sentences they think they deserve.
After weighing in from time to time and looking like he’s trying to contain intense exasperation, Castro tells the defense attorneys that it’s their job to argue for short sentences, after which we learn that the accused were all put away for 30 years to life.
Compared to the 99-minute “Comandante,” the tight, under-an-hour format of “Looking for Fidel” offers much less opportunity for casual or oblique insights, but it nonetheless yields a few. After a doctor performs a checkup and announces that the 77-year-old leader has the heart of a 32-year-old, Castro gets up and says, “I declare myself healthy” (truth be told, he looks paler and seems somewhat less sharp than he did in “Comandante”); confronted with Amnesty Intl.’s extensive criticisms of his regime, Castro states, “Cubans do not believe in Amnesty Intl.,” brands the org’s accusations “lies” and blithely dismisses all domestic dissidents as being in the employ of the U.S.
Stone puts particular energy into pressing Castro on the issue of his succession and even urges him to retire in favor of new blood, but naturally the gray fox will have none of it. “I think I will die with my boots on,” Castro confides, while disingenuously insisting that he’s had no time to think about the issue of who or what will come after him, other than to egotistically imagine that, after death, “My influence would grow.”
As before, Castro leads Stone out onto the street to show the support he still claims to enjoy among “the people,” although pic features snippets from opponents who tell a different story. Camera angles and editing are sometimes too jazzily eccentric for their own good, creating a borderline slapdash impression, and score verges on the cheesy.