As I have mentioned before, Cristina Khuly, the filmmaker responsible for “Shoot Down” the documentary about the downing of two unarmed civilian aircraft by Cuban MiG fighters over international waters in 1996 has furnished me with a reviewer’s copy of the film. I had been procrastinating about seeing it. You see, I had already seen an earlier version of the film at the Olympia theater in downtown Miami in February of 2006. I had been promising Cristina that I would watch the updated film and write about it. But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to popping that DVD in the machine and pressing play. I knew how painful it would be to watch it again.
The thing is that the film is so cathartic, causing the viewer to go from pride to sadness to anger to even more anger. At least that’s what I felt when I watched it the first time. And I knew it was going to be that way again. On Friday, the film opened in various theaters so I realized I could no longer put off the inevitable. So Saturday morning I watched the updated version of “Shoot Down”.
The first thing I want to say as that I think the film is excellent. The pain and anger I felt watching the film, both times, had nothing to do with the film but rather the events depicted in the film and the attitudes expressed by some in the film.
Like any documentary film, it’s assembled with images from a variety of sources including archival footage, newscasts, photographs and material that was shot specifically for it. I want to pause to highlight how beautifully shot this film is. From the strikingly beautiful images of Brothers to the Rescue planes flying over the straights of Florida to the interview footage the colors are vibrant and jump off of the screen.
I think I need to address some criticisms of the film. Like I said in my previous review of the first cut of the film, this film is a serious attempt to look at a controversial event in the contentious history between the U.S. and fidel castro. This is not a piece of propaganda like the so-called documentaries by Michael Moore. As such, Khuly included interviews and excerpts of interviews with people that perhaps some of us don’t like to listen to. Such people include castro himself, castro-apologist Saul Landau and former Clinton staffer Richard Nuccio. I think its unfair though to criticize the film simply for including people whose opinions the viewer might disagree with. There is plenty in the film to give alternate perspectives to those offered by Landau, Nuccio and former general John J. Sheehan who I criticized in my previous review.
The conclusions that I draw from the film are the following:
1. The shoot down is the sole responsibility of the castro regime.
2. The shoot down took place in international airspace.
3. The U.S. reaction to the shoot down was totally inadequate
4. Prior to the shoot down the Clinton administration was looking for accommodations with castro and the shoot down derailed that.
It’s this last point that Landau laments at the end of the film. You see, “enlightened” people like him think that if we “engage” the beastly tyrant that is castro, if we only “reason” with him and try to “negotiate” with him that he’ll stop being a beastly tyrant. And that it’s these “crazy Cubans” with their ideas of freedom and liberty that are getting in the way of letting cooler heads prevail.
For his part Nuccio repeats the oft-heard argument that the U.S. policy toward Cuba is not a foreign policy but a domestic one geared toward winning votes in Florida and New Jersey. Well, that’s probably how his boss, Bill Clinton, treated it, but I don’t accept that.
Other criticisms of the film have come from Jose Basulto, the founder of Brothers to the Rescue, who apparently feels he wasn’t given a fair shake in the film. I disagree. Some of the people interviewed in the film want to lay at least part of the blame on Basulto but others in the film absolve him of blame. Like any good documentary, the viewer needs to decide for himself what to think.
As I mentioned above I don’t blame Basulto. As the film accurately documents, Basulto’s plane was the one flying closest to Cuba. According Basulto in the film, he always took that position because he felt it was the most dangerous. Ironically, it was his plane that was spared. There’s an interesting sequence in the film which Basulto explains this and that everyone that flew for Brothers to the Rescue did so of their own accord and knew that it might be dangerous with intermittent cuts to Khuly’s mother (the sister of one of the pilots) in which she expresses that Basulto should have called off the flights that day because he knew there was added danger. Perhaps Basulto feels that’s unfair but it’s her opinion and what’s more she goes on to unequivocally blame the Cuban chain of command from fidel and raul castro down to the MiG pilots. And though this is speculation on my part, Basulto’s being spared may have been an intentional act by the regime that preferred a discredited and live Basulto than a martyred one.
If there’s one criticism that I have of the film in its present version it’s that the last words are given to these questionable characters that I mentioned above and not to Basulto and some of the others in the film. For example, at the end General Sheehan repeats the common fallacy that current U.S. policy is somehow geared against ordinary Cubans. He should know better. It’s not U.S. policy that represses Cubans in Cuba, it’s Cuban policy. U.S. policy is ostensibly intended to keep pressure on the regime by not recognizing it as legitimate and by keeping financial resources out of the hands of the regime; resources it would use for what it has always used resources for: repression at home and subversion abroad.
This film is an improvement over the first edition, which I already recommended and thus I recommend that you support this film and go see it at a theater below.