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Redeeming qualities save Castro film by a whisker

PARK CITY, Utah--Is "Comandante" a bad film because it shows Fidel Castro, the old baseball star, effortlessly fielding Oliver Stone's softball questions? Or is it a good film for the very same reason?

A debate raged in the lobby of the 1,300-seat Eccles Center after the Sundance premiere of Stone's new film. Harlan Jacobson, covering for USA Today, was outraged. He recently returned from the Havana Film Festival, filled with questions that he would have liked to ask Castro, and Stone avoided all of them. Why, for example, didn't Stone ask the Cuban dictator if his interview represented an opening to the Cuban exiles in Florida?

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My own tendency was to approach the film as a phenomenon. Most of us have never seen Castro, except in film clips from one of his endless speeches. Here he is unplugged, over a period of three days, talking with Stone in his office, touring a medical school, making a neighborhood visit, eating meals, introducing his children, talking about politics, theology, philosophy and Ernest Hemingway.

Like all documentaries, "Commandante" documents what is in front of the camera, and smart viewers don't take it at face value. If Stone asks the wrong questions, well, then, this could be a documentary showing how Fidel's charm seduced the famous American director. I think Jacobson is in danger of reviewing the film he would have made, instead of the film that Stone, for better or worse, has made.

Stone does, for the record, ask some hard questions--about Cuban torturers in Hanoi, about prejudice against blacks and homosexuals in Cuba, about political prisoners. Castro's answers are masterful in the way they rephrase and deflect. Most fascinating is their conversation about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which in Castro's eyes was a Big Power chess game with unsophisticated Cuba caught in the middle.

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