Producers: Ollie Aslin, Gary Lennon and Kristen Weber Directors: Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon Screenplay: Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon Cast: Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, René González and José Basulto Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Anyone who fondly remembers Joe Weisberg’s FX series “The Americans,” which from 2013 to 2018 followed for six seasons the activities of Mischa and Nadezhda, fictional Soviet spies living undercover in the U.S. during the Reagan years as the supposedly apple-pie Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, should appreciate this documentary about five Cuban men who performed similar service for their country in the following decade. They were arrested in 1998, tried, convicted and imprisoned, but all were eventually released between 2011 and 2014.
Just as the TV series effectively made one complicit with the ersatz American couple as they evaded their FBI pursuers, writer-directors Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon (with Aslin also doing the editing) present a sympathetic view of the Cuban Five, as they came to be called, allowing them to tell their own stories in lengthy interviews, supplemented by recollections from their wives, who were unaware of the fact that they weren’t defectors until they were unmasked. (Alex Sapienza, Raja Nundall and Stephen Standen shot the new material.) The filmmakers also make substantial use of found footage, news reports, and, as a perhaps too cutesy linking device, scenes from a Cuban TV series about an undercover agent to situate the episode within a broader, if selective, historical context. A score by Damien Lynch completes the capably conventional technical package.
The fundamental contention of the Cubans is that their operation posed little real threat to the U.S., and was undertaken simply as a response to far more menacing efforts by the U.S. against Cuba and its communist leader Fidel Castro—starting with the Bay of Pigs fiasco and continuing in assassination attempts (remember those poisoned cigars?) and under-the-table support for the “unofficial” efforts at subversion of the Castro regime by Cuban exile groups operating in America. If things are structured to suggest villainy anywhere, it’s not on the part of the Cubans, but the U.S. intelligence apparatus and Cuban-American activists, particularly José Basulto, who was unremitting in his efforts to undermine the Castro regime and exacerbate the tension between the two governments. The overwhelming impression is that whatever terrorism occurred came from the mainland, not the island—a proposition that certainly seems solid in terms of the number of people it cites as having lost their lives on the either side.
That doesn’t mean that the makers ignore those with a different opinion. Basulto is interviewed as well, and is unrepentant in defending his actions. U.S. officials who were instrumental in the Cubans’ arrest and prosecution get their say as well (as do the lawyers who represented the men at trial). But the overall impression is clear, and the celebratory reception of the men back in Cuba is treated pretty much as their due.
People can debate whether “Castro’s Spies” winds up being more propaganda than objective reportage. But the film does at least bring back into the public consciousness a significant episode in the fraught relations that have existed between Cuba and the United States over the past sixty-plus years—one that, while big news at the time, is, unlike the missile crisis, largely forgotten in this country today.