638 Ways to Kill Castro

I received a review copy of Dollan Cannell’s 638 Ways to Kill Castro (IMDB) a few weeks ago but haven’t had time to review it because of a variety of circumstances–including some technical difficulties with the blog. It’s also one of those documentaries that confounds any kind of immediate response, in part because of the twisted political relationship between the US and Cuba, one that has been in the news quite a bit lately because of Castro’s health problems (old age may finally do what the CIA could not) and because of Michael Moore’s depiction of the Cuban health system in Sicko (or more precisely Fred Thompson’s depiction of Sicko).

638 Ways takes its title from the extensive catalog of assassination attempts compiled by Fabian Escalante, who has written a book by the same title. But instead of offering a somber, overly serious treatment of these attempts, Cannell’s film borrows from B-movies and detective films in depicting the often bumbling attempts to take out Cuba’s longtime leader. Many of these attempts–which included a CIA plot to put a beard-removal substance on Castro’s shoes, an exploding cigar, a poisoned wetsuit–are the stuff of bad spy movies, or at least bad James Bond villains, which makes this B-movie approach seem rather fitting (in fact, according to the Guardian article on the film, John Kennedy actually consulted Bond author Ian Fleming). This B-movie technique has the approach of satirizing Castro’s would-be assassins, many of whom were willing to appear in the film, but it also has the effect of trivializing Cuba’s human rights record, which is far from perfect. In fact, the film offers only minimal insight into Castro or the specifics of the Cuban government, which likely means that the film will do little to change perceptions of Castro, socialism, or Cuba itself as a country.

That being said, I think it’s worth emphasizing and criticizing US policy towards Cuba, specifically the widely documented assassination tries and the other attempts at regime change (including, of course, the Bay of Pigs fiasco). And while the accounting system that identifies 638 different assassination attempts might exaggerate things slightly, the film raises important questions about the US role in Cuba, with Escalante asserting that there have been multiple attempts on Castro’s life under every US president since Eisenhower. And as Cannell points out in the Guardian article, the film addresses important questions about how the US government defines terrorism: “what shrieks at you is the double standard.”

The film’s website has a number of articles about Cuba and Castro and features a number of clips from the film itself. I continue to be fascinated by the access Cannell received to people who might, under other circumstances, be labeled as terrorists and continue to think about the film’s resonances with contemporary events, including Moore’s depiction of Cuba in Sicko. Comments are currently down, so if you have anything you’d like to add, feel free to email me (chutry[at]msn[dot]com) and I’ll include reactions in updated versions of this entry.

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