A bold new documentary calls Castro to task for senseless murders
Michael C. Moynihan | January 29, 2008
In June 2000, this magazine published a cover story on Hollywood's
"missing movies." These were not, alas, films that had been neglected by
inattentive archivists or spurned by Ted Turner's guardians of classic
film. The target of this search-and-rescue operation, wrote critic
Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, were those tales of injustice, those triumphs
of the spirit that Hollywood had little interest in producing. Long
under the spell of radical writers such as Dalton Trumbo and Clifford
Odets, Hollywood was "a town that welcomed Daniel Ortega of the
Sandinista junta but never took up the cause of a single Soviet or
Eastern European dissident."
Almost 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the entertainment
industry is still sensitive to charges of Cold War jingoism, though the
spread of hipster Buddhism has necessitated the occasional dramatization
of China's occupation of Tibet. A spate of recent films—none of them
produced in Hollywood—is also providing a more nuanced picture of the
Cold War, one that eschews simple moral equivalence in favor of the
dystopian reality of the Eastern Bloc.
This past year saw the release of The Singing Revolution, a riveting
documentary detailing the little-known story of Estonia's non-violent
resistance to Soviet occupation; the German political drama The Lives of
Others, a deeply affecting portrait of the Zamyatinian nightmare that
was East Germany; and Katyn, a dramatic recapitulation of the mass
murder of 20,000 Polish officers shortly after the country's partition
under conditions set by the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. (Eight
years ago, Billingsley wondered presciently why the story of the Katyn
massacre never made it to the big screen.)
Even Hollywood's strange love affair with the Cuban revolution, recently
evidenced by Oliver Stone's Comandante and Walter Salles' saccharine
salute to Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries, is at long last showing
signs of abating. A few years ago, New York painter/director Julian
Schnabel memorably upbraided Castro in his film Before Night Falls, a
portrait of the gay writer Reinaldo Arenas, imprisoned by the communist
government for both his aberrant politics and sexuality.
Now, from first-time director Cristina Khuly, comes Shoot Down, a
brilliantly rendered and scrupulously even-handed documentary revisiting
the 1996 Cuban downing of two civilian planes over international waters,
both piloted by Miami-based exiles from the group Brothers to the
Rescue. Khuly, a 37-year-old sculptor, is the niece of shoot-down victim
Armando Alejandre Jr.
An event soon overshadowed by the saga of Elian Gonzales, the attack on
the unarmed Brothers to the Rescue planes is now largely forgotten
outside Miami. And despite the smokescreen of misinformation presented
by Castro and his foreign enablers, the facts of the story are rather
straightforward and grimly characteristic of a totalitarian regime.
As three Brothers to the Rescue planes approached Cuban territory, the
lead plane, piloted by the group's founder Jose Basulto, briefly
breached Cuban airspace. While the planes were searching for refugees in
the water, officials in Havana, tipped off by a mole in the Brothers
leadership, scrambled Soviet-made MiG fighter planes to knock the planes
out of the sky. Basulto's plane managed to escape. When the other two
were vaporized by Cuban missiles, both were flying over international
The mole, former Cuban Air Force MiG pilot Juan Pablo Roque, is a
chilling reminder of the Stasi-like tactics of the Cuban secret police.
Roque infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue by insinuating himself into the
exile community—going so far as to write a book for the Cuban American
National Foundation detailing his escape from the island—and marrying a
local woman as cover. The day before the deadly flight, Roque declined
an invitation to participate in the mission and informed his wife that
he would be away on business. A day later, he reappeared on Cuban state
television to denounce the Brothers as "terrorists" of the empire.
It is perhaps unintentional, but Shoot Down reasserts the controversy
and complexity of the Clinton years, often obscured in hindsight by the
salaciousness of the Lewinsky scandal and the failures of the Bush
presidency. From our vantage point, it's easy to forget that Clinton
sanctioned the liberal use of heavily militarized federal agents at Ruby
Ridge, Waco, and during the seizure of Elian Gonzales from a Florida
residence. He also reversed a 30-year old American policy treating those
fleeing Cuba as political refugees.
It was this change, we learn, that precipitated Brothers to the Rescue's
shift from search-and-rescue operations in the Florida Straits to direct
confrontation with the Castro regime. (Prior to the shoot down, Brothers
dropped pro-democracy leaflets from within Cuban airspace, to be carried
by the wind to shore.) Under pressure from Castro, the Clinton
administration revised the 1966 Cuban Adjustment act, reclassifying
those fleeing Cuba from political refugees to illegal immigrants worthy
of repatriation—unless they managed to reach American shores. This was
the birth of the "wet foot-dry foot" policy, under which individuals
would be returned to Cuba if picked up at sea. This was also the death
of Brothers to the Rescue's previously cordial relationship with U.S.
The Clinton administration's response to the shoot-down crisis, hotly
argued by the documentary's on-screen surrogates, is found by all to be
deficient. That leaves viewer wondering what, short of sending F-16s on
sorties over Havana, the appropriate response to such hostile acts
should have been. It is clear, though, that, as Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart
(R-Fla.) argues in the film, had such an event been perpetrated by the
apartheid government of South Africa or Pinochet's Chile, the level of
public outrage surely would have been greater.
But arguments like those of Diaz-Balart aren't offered in isolation.
Shoot Down strives not to be seen as a "Miami exile" film, leading Khuly
to explore—and subtly reject—the Castroite perspective. The strenuous
attempt at balance is, at times, irksome. One wonders if the inclusion
of Castro hagiographer Saul Landau, who signed a recent editorial on the
Cuban revolution with the exclamation "Viva Fidel!," adds anything to
the story, other than to act as another layer of insulation against
charges of bias.
But this is a minor quibble. Unctuous fellow-travelers such as Landau
(who sheepishly confesses to the camera that Cuba's judicial system is
"less than perfect") will convince no one that destroying civilian
planes was necessary for the revolution's survival.
Almost a decade ago in reason, Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley rightly
bemoaned the film industry's lack of interest in arguably the 20th
century's greatest tragedy: the stubborn adherence of politicians,
artists, and intellectuals to the dogma of Marxism-Leninism. The recent
crop of films promises, however belatedly, to begin the process of
Currently in limited release, Shoot Down by itself will not redraw the
image of Castro-as-beneficent-leader—Michael Moore's paean to Cuban
health care was just nominated for an Oscar, after all. But every little
Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of reason.