Perspective is a fickle thing. It also may be the most under-appreciated aspect of modern social discourse. More than ever we as a society are collectively dug in. The combination of the vast abundance of news media available to consume as well as the giant echo chamber that is social media has not only enabled it but, on some level, incentivized it. I’m not old enough to know for sure if a truly open-minded world ever existed, but I find it tough to imagine one as closed as the one we exist in today.
Castro’s Spies, written and directed by the team of Gary Lennon (Orange is the New Black) and Ollie Aslin, does not shy away from that unfortunate truth. On the contrary, it embraces it and shines a giant light on it. The one hundred minute documentary exquisitely tells the story of Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González (also known as the Cuban Five), five men sent to the United State in early 90’si by the Cuban government to infiltrate a fringe anti-Communist group located in Miami, Florida.
Political documentaries can be tough. In trying to inform and entertain a wide audience, it is vital not to inject personal biases into the narrative. The story should be told objectively. But human beings are fallible, thus it’s probably unrealistic to expect that to happen. But Castro’s Spies comes pretty damn close. The only biases in this story come from the featured people themselves. And how could there not be?
But Lennon and Aslin feature participants from both sides, the pursuit of truth and honest storytelling being front and center here. To go along with an in depth oral history from the Cuban Five themselves, the audience is privy to interviews with opposing attorney’s, as well as Jose Basulto, a Cuban political dissident and the founder of “Brothers to the Rescue”, an organization created to, in their words, “help Cuban people free themselves from dictatorship through the use of active nonviolence.” Basulto, who is described as a “terrorist” by some of the Cuban Five, is shown flying a helicopter rescuing Cuban deserters trying to make their way to the United States. He is also shown leading a team into Cuban airspace, dropping an array of flyers containing propaganda meant to turn the Cuban population against their government.
As the documentary weaves through the two opposing perspectives, it becomes increasingly difficult to pick a side. On one hand you have five Cuban men, each with families and loved ones of their own, approached by the symbol of revolution in their country, and are told that their people need them. On the other hand, you have a country fresh off a forty year war against communism, seeing hoards of people who would rather brave the Atlantic Ocean on a piece of wood than remain in Cuba. Who is to say any one of us would have acted differently had we seen the world from their perspective, or lived the life they had?
The narrative takes a turn about three quarters of the way through the documentary when the Cuban Five are arrested inside the United States. The trial is held in Miami and the Cuban Five are effectively railroaded. Despite minimal evidence to the crimes they were accused of, the Five Cuban men are given the maximum penalty. This not only sheds a light on the issues of the American prison system, but also asks the viewer a simple question; how can the U.S indict foreign citizens so harshly for doing something (insertion as an act of prevention) that we know the United States is doing globally?
Through it all, Castro’s Spies remains consistent. The strength of the documentary lies in its objectivity, and its dedication to telling the story. That may seem simplistic, but it is something that is becoming more and more rare. It is entirely plausible to me that two different people can watch this and finish with two distinctly different takeaways. It’s a documentary that should serve as a reminder to all people in today’s day and age; life is complicated and filled with nuance. Too often do we enter social discourse so convinced that we have all the answers, we forget to ask any of the important questions. Where we as a society are failing, Castro’s Spies succeeds.
Castro’s Spies will be available on May 13 on video on demand platforms