638 Ways To Kill Castro

featuring: Fidel Castro, Orlando Bosch, and Luis Posada Carriles

director: Dollan Cannell

140 minutes (E) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Get ‘The Beard’ growl a number of unnerving Cuban expatriates in this intriguingly whimsical documentary dealing with America’s 50-year obsession with Cuba and its straggly-bearded cigar-chomping leader Fidel Castro. Featuring the usual collection of talking heads, interviews and archive footage that has come to make up the modern documentary form, 638 Ways To Kill Castro attempts to encompass both the chilling reality of the on-going fight against Castro and the abject absurdity of some of the past assassination attempts. Unfortunately, the result is not entirely successful.

On one level, this is a deeply amusing piece of documentary filmmaking. Dollan Cannell and his team unearth some of the ludicrous but apparently genuine lengths to which both the CIA and Cuban anti-Castro elements have gone in their attempts to “get The Beard.” These range from packing conch shells full of explosives to injecting his cigars with poison, and attempting to spread the rumour that Castro is the Antichrist using a submerged submarine firing flares into the night sky above the island. Aside from these whimsical cases, the film also talks to a succession of Cuban freedom fighters who invariably were about to kill Castro but all seemed to chicken out at the last moment because they realised that while they wanted him dead, they didn’t want him dead so much that they were willing to die or go to prison. These two elements combine to give the attempts to kill Castro an amusingly amateurish feel like some kind of spoof espionage thriller. However, while these events are undeniably humorous and have therefore seemingly formed the basis for the film’s identity (as expressed through the whimsical menus, title and case cover), they are not really the meat of the film.

Where this film distinguishes itself from Discovery Channel-style documentaries is that it manages to secure a number of remarkable interviews with some of the most brutal and zealous participants in the war against Castro. Now all old men, the likes of Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles have devoted their lives to the attempt to depose Castro, even going so far as to blow up a Cuban airliner back in October 1976. Proud of their lives devoted to terrorism and utterly unrepentant of their fanatical views, these old men are disturbing and chilling. However, what is interesting about these people is the extent to which they appear to have the support of the Cuban-American community in Florida and how this support and friendship even extends as far as the Bush White House and both Bush senior and junior have evidently protected these men from justice despite their crimes and histories as terrorists. So much for the “if you harbour a terrorist, you’re a terrorist” rhetoric, eh, George?

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The problem with 638 Ways To Kill Castro is that, doubtless for the purposes of being accessible, the film concentrates upon the comically inept assassination attempts, thereby compressing the time devoted to the substantial issues raised by the nature of the war against Castro. This regrettable editorial choice is evident from the fact that the DVD’s substantial and fascinating extras include both a rare interview with former US President turned statesman Jimmy Carter, and an interview with one of the CIA agents that were part of the ‘special group’ devoted to dealing with Castro. These two interviews effectively place the documentary’s content in both the wider context of US foreign policy and the context of office politics as, evidently, the weirder plans to kill Castro were only thought up in order for the CIA to have something to show Bobby Kennedy who was apparently baying for the blood of Castro.

Alternately chilling, whimsical and fascinating, 638 Ways To Kill Castro is one of the better documentaries to appear on DVD in recent years. Despite its regrettable pandering to lowbrow whimsy, it is comparable with Alex Gibney’s 2005, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, both in terms of its underlying intelligence and its editorial decision to neuter itself, redressed only by the fact that the DVD makes up for it by giving us a chance to see the more thoughtful interviews that the director chose to cut. Warmly recommended and Viva Cuba Libre!