Credit: Glasgow Film Festival

Review: Castro’s Spies (GFF)

By Ethan Brodie

An exhilarating tale of resistance and espionage forms the basis of this new historical documentary, as Ollie Aslin and Gary Lennon investigate the activities of those who lingered in the shadows of Cuba and America’s plagued relationship.

Regardless of whether or not you are an avid student of 20th-century diplomatic history like me, I am confident that you will be riveted by the story of the Cuban Five – an elite group of undercover agents who operated out of Florida in the 1990s and are now hailed as the last soldiers of the Cold War. Castro’s Spies is the compelling story of five men who felt morally obligated to push their minds, bodies, and souls to the brink in order to defend their island home from foreign attack. 

After providing a brief but sufficient history of the Cuban revolution, and the subsequent souring of Cuban-American relations, the film shifts its primary focus to its titular characters’ lives, detailing their development into ardent ideologues and professional spies. Through in-depth interviews with all five agents, we learn about their gruelling training regime and the immense personal risks and sacrifices they made, serving as a testament to their sheer commitment to Cuba’s revolution. Abandoning unsuspecting families to “defect” to America, they adopted new identities, led double lives, and earned their status as national heroes by refusing to cooperate with the FBI upon their capture on American soil. They did so, knowing full well that their refusal would entail severe prison sentences. Whatever your stance on Fidel Castro’s Cuba may be, it is hard to deny the courage and resilience that these men possessed. 

Aslin and Lennon’s documentary highlights the ideological battle that underpinned the men’s voyage across the Florida Straits and their successive infiltration of Cuban-American groups. It was predominantly a battle between staunchly conservative Cuban exiles, fiercely resentful of Castro’s government, and irregular partisans who were willing to take any means necessary to preserve “Communist” Cuba’s self-determination. To the directors’ credit, the film is a relatively balanced overview of a tense series of events from a polarising era. Not only do we hear from the Cuban Five and Cuban politicians, but we are also given strong rhetorical remarks from Jose Basulto, the leader of Brothers to the Rescue (one of multiple anti-Castro initiatives that had been established in Florida), as well as from an American lawyer and an intelligence official. The variety of voices helps to effectively place this spy story within the wider context of nationhood, class, and colonialism, which were all fundamental elements of the political rift between Cuba and America. 

I have watched a few great documentaries about Cuba recently – films that I would highly recommend – including Salut Les Cubains (Agnes Varda, 1964) and Cuba and the Cameraman (Jon Alpert, 2017). However, Castro’s Spies offers a notably different perspective on the Cuban experience, telling a more politically charged story, and it is a welcomed contribution to the rich cinematic tapestry of one of the world’s most fascinating countries. It is as thrilling as a John le Carré novel and as epic and insightful as a Ken Burns historical film.  If you are at least remotely interested in the subject, I would encourage you to seek the film out — whether that be at the Glasgow Film Festival or beyond.     

Castro’s Spies is showing at Glasgow Film Festival from 26 February.


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