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Sycophante

Patrick Mulcahy says Oliver Stone’s flawed Castro biopic leaves more questions than answers.

Premiered at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, director Oliver Stone's first foray into documentaries, Comandante, is predictably disappointing fare. Stone's subject is the Cuban President, Fidel Castro, who has ruled the tiny island for over four decades. Stone has a long-standing interest in Latin America. The title of his third (and best film), Salvador, says it all. He also developed the film version of the musical, Evita (Alan Parker eventually adapted his screenplay) and planned an (aborted) bio-pic of General Noreiga, which was to have starred Al Pacino. In the past, Stone has shown sympathies that could be construed as 'left wing'. He is, alas, as patriotic a right-wing American as they come. After all, Charlton Heston starred in his most-recent feature, Any Given Sunday.

One can see why the gap-toothed director, here sporting a moustache that makes him look like Saddam Hussein's third decoy, would have been welcomed by Castro. Here, the Cuban leader would have an opportunity to explain his ideology to the American public undiluted by CNN and the like. Stone's agenda is somewhat different. He is interested in his own bêtes noir: Castro's views on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the behaviour of Richard Nixon, the potential for 'other Vietnams'.

Granted three days to interview Castro in February 2002, Stone surrounds him with digital video cameramen almost as if he were shooting a concert movie like Stop Making Sense. (Would that Castro perform his acoustic version of Psycho Killer.) The feverish editing style, pointless tracking shots, inexpressive close-ups and (mostly) un-contextualised grainy newsreel footage do little toenhance the verbal questions and answers. When Stone has a chance to let a picture tell a story, moving through Castro's art collection in his Presidential Palace, he barely pauses to let us see the work.

The first question shows how uncertain Stone's approach is: 'How do you divide up your day? How much is administrative, how much creative, how long do you spend on maintenance?' (How I missed Michael Moore's faux-genial direct approach.) Castro's answer, typically less-than-telling, is that he spends little on paperwork and most of his day talking to the people. One assumes he cannot maintain the country because the US blockade restricts his access to resources. (He does explain that he saves time by not shaving, but his beard, though long, does look as though it receives the attention of a gardener, if not a barber.) Throughout, we never get the sense of a meeting of informed intellects. Stone has modelled his interviewing style on Michael Parkinson, without recourse to the Yorkshireman's lower-middle-class background.

So what does Stone let Castro say? Firstly, how good his Latin American Medical School is, offering free training for under-privileged students not only from other Latin American countries but also from hispanic communities in North America. He talks up the improvement in literacy rates and in the numbers going to universities. He explains how he does not believe that President Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman ('when you shoot a rifle, the barrel moves away from the target, you have to re-aim; the shots could not have come from one person'). Nixon was 'a hypocrite'. 'Eva Peron, rather than her husband Juan', was a person to aspire to. The Cuban Missile Crisis was brought about by 'a poor piece of translation' (he never intended Cuba to offer a first strike). Gorbachev did not let the Cuban people down (cancelling Soviet aid), it was 'the fault of the US blockade'.

The most interesting section concerns Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who successfully assisted Castro in his rise to power. According to accounts, says Stone, 'Guevara returned from Angola [where he was part of a contingent of 30,000 troops], spent forty-eight hours in a heated debate with you [Castro], then slammed the door and headed for Bolivia [where he died in 1968].' 'That is ridiculous,' counters Castro. 'Who writes history books like that?' (Evidently, he has not seen any Hollywood bio-pics.) Significantly, he never elaborates.

So many questions, so little information. Castro makes a point of not talking about his personal life (his various affairs). He refuses to condemn organized religion as 'opium for the masses'. He does not think of himself as a dictator. On democracy, he curtly tells Stone that he should find out more about our system to discover how people are elected; candidates come 'from the people' (as opposed to political parties). For his part, Stone lets him off the hook on his government's treatment of the black population and of homosexuals. When asked who will succeed him, Castro's answer would make even Alistair Campbell gag, 'The people'. Stone never asks the killer questions, whether Castro thinks he is still the best person to lead his country, whether Cuba will eventually collapse like East Germany. Castro's persona, always seen in green fatigues as Commander-in-Chief rather than a President (except when the Pope paid him a visit), suggests that he is too defensive to fully consider the value of what he is clinging on to.

Comandante opens in cinemas in October.