Review by James Mahon
Castro’s Spies (Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon, 2022), is a wonderfully engrossing documentary on a subject that remains relatively unknown in popular culture. On the surface level it may seem like a relatively nuts and bolts spy story, yet it reveals itself as a stinging polemic of American foreign intervention, and at its core, the myth of the American ‘freedom and liberty’.
The story itself centres on a group of Cuban intelligence officers who were stationed undercover in the US during the 1990s. Later known as the ‘Cuban Five’, it chronicles their recruitment, training, activity, capture and eventual release. With participation from all five of the former agents and their supporters, combined with their fierce critics, including the US Attorney General that originally prosecuted them, Aslin and Lennon have produced a comprehensive, balanced and multi-faceted piece of film-making.
Critical to this is the authenticity inherent in the film’s make-up. This is largely derived by gaining a direct insight from the agents themselves describing their experiences – from the mechanics of Cuban espionage to the psychological toll of having to embody a different identity 24/7. Added to by interviews with their spouses and children, the effect is to imbue the whole narrative with a definitive sense of authority and legitimacy. Moreover, the documentary is not merely a propagandistic tool for the Cuban state. Besides the fact that it is Irish funded, as well as the prosecuting Attorney General, it interviews infamous anti-Castro Cuban exile Jose Basulto. Both of whom are forthright in the conviction that the ‘Cuban Five’ should still be in prison and in the supremacy of American beliefs and values. While it is commendable that the filmmakers strived to provide a differing view on events other than the first hand testimony of the obviously pro-Cuban agent, the increasingly obvious hypocrisy of Basulto et al, ensures that no matter how neutral the documentary pertains to be, it is and you are, definitively on the side of the ‘Five’
Essential to this is the fact that the documentary engages in the broader America and Cuba divide. Whilst simultaneously allowing the ‘Five’ to have a voice and agency, it deftly depicts the relationship between the US and Cuba post Castro’s revolution. This is achieved through previously unseen stunning archive footage from the Cuban film institute expertly pieced together – bringing to life the countless times the US through attempted to undermine and overthrow the Cuban state and the devastating effect this had on the Cuban people, both socially and economically. Furthermore Aslin and Lennon are laissez-faire in their approach, refusing to interfere or engineer something. The overarching tone is one of allowing the storylines to naturally unfold – the result being a sharp critique of 20th century American imperialism.
At times the documentary may be slightly too ambitious in its efforts to encompass the history of Cuba-US relations since 1959. Nevertheless, it is a superb telling of a seemingly untold story, that perfectly balances both the personal and the political.