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Castro’s Spies Review: Documentarian Captivates

Castro’s Spies benefits from an indulgent treatment of the details and minutiae of Cuban spycraft in the United States.

Castro’s Spies jumps off at an absolutely madcap pace. In just a few short minutes, the film effectively spins nearly a hundred years of Cuban history as a fast viewer crash course. It’s an interesting creative choice, and reflective of a film almost overflowing with interesting tidbits. For those unaware of Cuban history, it serves as a compellingly crafted Wikipedia-style introduction and for those more aware it acts as a sort of miniature cultural immersion. For a film whose thesis takes a mighty favorable view of Cuban spies operating in the United States, it’s an important empathy device to set up the history of the island and its hinge point in so much global conflict.

The Cuban 5 were a group of spies captured and imprisoned in the United States, and serve as the film’s primary focus. They have been much in the news lately as President Obama released the spies as part of the normalization of United States and Cuban relations. Accordingly, much material about the group has quickly arisen, such as Wasp Network, Oliver Assayas’ fictional account of the group’s efforts. Castro’s Spies, though, is the first documentary to bring together so many integral players from the era to craft a first person account. The quality of documentaries is often driven by what sort of access they are able to gain, and the players on display here are impressive. Directors Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon have assembled all five spies, their family, and lawyers. They’ve also included a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida who helped spearhead the prosecution of the spies and an anti-Castro activist to balance the ledger.

Despite the effort to include some contrarian voices, the film’s politics are fairly overt. Castro is treated relatively positively, and the spies as heroes. Moreover, the US government is depicted as shady and duplicitous. As always, it’s a question of perspective and authorial intent. An FBI focused version of this story would present things very differently. And just because there’s a bias in the storytelling, it does not obviate the fascinating primary accounts compiled.

loud and clear reviews Castro’s Spies
Castro’s Spies (Courtesy of the Glasgow Film Festival)

Knowing the broad strokes of the history, I was most interested in the specific minutiae the film revealed and I was not disappointed. From fairly silly anecdotes about the spies wearing big gold chains to emulate Puerto Ricans to a more serious focus on the modest lifestyles the spies lived in the US, there’s a ton of detail on display. Even personal details of the Cuban 5 talking about their romances, and having to hide their “real jobs” from their spouses brings crisp, fascinating insights.

I was particularly enthralled by the footage from a Cuban TV show called In Silence It Had to Be Done. The show was a propagandistic spy thriller that showcased Cuban operators achieving successful missions in the United States. It was, apparently, the most popular show in Cuba for a number of years. The James Bond-esque adventures of the show serve as a fascinating counterpoint to the more modest reality of the spies. As one describes it, a spy who does his job for money, instead of love of country, would open himself to always choosing a job based on the money. It’s a fascinating insight into the psyche of the sort of person who takes on this sort of life.

Castro’s Spies is a crisply made documentary that serves up a number of fascinating insights into the Cuban 5. In some ways, it feels entirely overstuffed with fascinating details – I’d watch an entire documentary about that Cuban spy show – as though the directors found themselves constantly dragged into tangents with each new insight they discovered. Nevertheless, the information saturation makes for crisp, compelling viewing.

Castro’s Spies premiered digitally at the Glasgow Film Festival.

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