Review: Castro’s Spies

Castro’s Spies is exactly the sort of thing that ends up being presented as an episode of BBC Storyville under a new, vaguer title. Which isn’t as pejorative a judgement as it sounds. It’s a fleet, well-structured assembly of interviews and archival footage (earlier documentaries, news footage and advertising), following the five Cuban agents who assumed new identities in the U.S., gathered information about the likelihood of impending attacks against Cuba (which anyone with a pair of binoculars could discern), and sent it home. The interviews run the gamut from the five themselves and their defence lawyers (who are at pains to stress that there’s no such crime as “spying” in American juridical terms) to the zealous though dim-witted prosecutors and figures like José Basulto, the Cuban-born CIA-trained organiser behind Brothers to the Rescue, an outfit that flew planes on the lookout for rafts carrying Cubans looking to disembark in Florida. (Basulto, just after bemoaning the fate of his father’s Amercian-supported sugar business, complains: “The middle classes didn’t believe that communism was the best for Cuba,” a sentence with an extraordinary lack of self-consciousness.) Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon’s film is sharp on the psychology of the five, the devotion to the roles they had to play, and exciting in its construction of the main events, such as René González’s disguised “defection” to the States. (The film will serve as a superb bit of context for Olivier Assayas’s Wasp Network: a film I fail to understand on almost any level, and still quite enjoy.) I’m thankful that Castro’s Spies doesn’t succumb to an easy anti-communist impulse, but I also think it’s skirting the context of CIA involvement in (or at least encouragement of) terrorist attacks on Cuba following the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main economic partner, when the country relied heavily on tourism to make up for the effects of American sanctions. There’s also an annoying structuring device that has an unpleasant consequence for the film’s discourse. Clips from a Cuban TV show (En silencio ha tenido que ser; In Silence it Had to be Done) are used to dramatise what there isn’t footage of—a formal choice that bleeds into the tone and texture of the film (there’s a moment of pausing and rewinding other archival material). This reduces the story to its media spectacle, especially when the five are tried and charged on trumped up counts, emphasising its televisuality at the expense of its place as but one episode in the history of Cuban resilience against the American imperial project.

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