U.S. meddling in South American politics is starkly uncovered in “The Day That Lasted 21 Years,” a painstakingly researched expose of the 1964 Brazilian military coup. Sifting through a wealth of interviews, declassified documents and period audiotapes, helmer Camilo Tavares delivers a damning, unassailable assessment of JFK and LBJ’s bullying policy of communist containment, and the damage it did to Brazil’s democratic institutions. Though tech quality is uneven and Tavares allows too many repetitions, he’s delivered an eye-opening docu whose merits deserve fest and ancillary support.
The March 1964 coup that overthrew Brazil’s popularly elected President Joao Goulart ushered in 21 years of military dictatorship and with it a prolonged period of suffering marked by disappearances and torture. Tavares goes back to 1961, when Goulart, as vice president, made a feather-ruffling state visit to Mao’s China four months after the Bay of Pigs debacle. U.S. concerns about Brazil’s leftward political shift came to a head when Goulart (popularly nicknamed Jango) became president in 1963, prompting Ambassador Lincoln Gordon to spearhead a CIA-backed covert campaign to bring the government down. (Gordon’s assistant Robert Bentley is among those interviewed here, and his supercilious, disingenuous attitude does the State Department no favors.)
Gordon argued that if Brazil became communist, the country wouldn’t be another Cuba, but rather another China. U.S. economic interests were too great to let that happen, and through various fronts, the CIA began to channel enormous sums of money into funding anti-Goulart candidates and planting false articles in the Brazilian press. When Lyndon B. Johnson became president, he continued his predecessor’s policies, signing off on a campaign to secretly bring together dissident elements in the Brazilian army in order to topple Goulart’s administration.
Via chilling tape recordings of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, as well as declassified documents and newsreel footage, Tavares lays out the goals of Operation Brother Sam, a return to old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy when the U.S. navy deployed ships along the Brazilian coast in the days leading up to the coup, ensuring swift support should the rebel officers have trouble overthrowing the government. As it turned out, intervention was unnecessary largely because Goulart, unwilling to sanction what could easily have turned into a bloody civil war, went into exile in Uruguay.
Tavares doesn’t ignore surviving supporters of the coup, and there are still some in Brazil who believe Goulart would have led the country into a Castro-like system. Yet, as one of the former officers pointedly states, the country needed to clean house, but no one cleans house for 21 years.
More judicious editing would eliminate some repetitions, especially among the talking heads, and cheaply doctored photos don’t belong in a documentary of this caliber. Fortunately, Tavares’ investigative research is riveting enough to minimize such annoyances, and although some pieces of the puzzle are quickly passed over, such as the Catholic Church’s role in supporting the military takeover, the overall effect is both revelatory and disturbing. Stateside auds in particular will be reminded that despite the positive domestic changes effected by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, their foreign-policy decisions cavalierly wreaked havoc across large swaths of the “developing world.”
Contempo news footage can be dodgy, and sound, especially of the presidential tapes, is occasionally difficult to discern (they’re helpfully subtitled in English). In 1986, Silvio Tendler’s docu “Jango” covered some of the material as then known, while this year’s docu “Jango Report,” helmed by Paulo Henrique Fontenelle, spends more time investigating Goulart’s exile and the Brazilian coup’s spillover to neighboring countries.