Andrew Billen - Slave to the people

Television - Oliver Stone allows himself to be seduced by the Cuban dictator's smooth answers, write

Oliver Stone has my sympathy. As an interviewer, you work for months to get access to your prey, a celebrity both grand and reclusive, more icon than human being. Finally, your request is granted. Moreover, the great man will give you all the time you want. Ask him anything, although naturally - and herewith the steel beneath the velvet glove - he has the right to stop proceedings at any moment. On the day, however, he plays a blinder, courteous, reflective and unoffendable. Gradually, your confidence builds and you dare to ask the harder questions. There is no explosion. You risk the odd joke. He laughs. With relief comes the dangerous instinct to relax. Talk turns to the meaning of life, God, women. After three days, he bids you farewell with a bear hug, man to man. And then you get home and play back your tape. To your initial disbelief, your subject has told you next to nothing. You have, in short, cocked up your big chance.

In my case, as a print journalist, the situation would be embarrassing, but you might yet be able to write your way out of it, using can after can of what is known in the trade as "colour". In the case of Oliver Stone's Comandante (Storyville, 9.20pm, Sunday 16 May), his profile of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the director added his colour in the editing suite. Even given the frenetic way in which documentaries such as The Fog of War are cut nowadays, this was a film that looked less like an attempt to address cultural attention deficit disorder than a symptom of it. The gleanings of three, shakily hand-held video cameras were chopped together jazzily as in the background played every musical cliche of Latin America, from the Buena Vista Social Club to "Begin the Beguine" and the soundtrack to Evita. Add the five decades of newsreel archive and you had, if nothing else, a lively hour and 35 minutes.

And nothing else is what this documentary offered. Well, you did get a sense of Fidel's charisma and the feeling that there was a dance in the old dog yet. In street encounters with his citizens, Castro provoked neither fear nor the displays of "spontaneous" affection that true tyrants inspire. We learned he has given up smoking, that he paces around his office for exercise, and that he watches films, but only, these days, on video. Titanic, he felt, would have been better on the big screen.

Talking Hollywood was one of the many ways that Stone let Castro get the better of him. How could we not sympathise with a film fan who had fallen for both Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot? What a happy coincidence, too, that he shared with the maker of JFK the belief that there had been a conspiracy behind the killing of Kennedy. (I must have missed the bit where Stone asked if Fidel knew anything else about that one.) Nor did the old warrior, still dressed in army fatigues, forget to remind Stone that he, too, was a soldier, wounded and decorated in Vietnam.

Thoroughly seduced, Stone asked some of the important questions, but did not interrogate the answers. At the start of the film, he quoted Castro's words, from when he came to power in 1959, about introducing "representative democracy". But, having broached the question of why Castro had never stood for election himself, he did not query the reply that there are elections all the time in Cuba. "I do admit I am a dictator: a dictator to myself. I am a slave to the people," the president explained. "In 47 years of revolution never have we practised torture. Torture was the method of Batista and we would never resort to those methods. It doesn't fit our mindset. It's not part of our morals."

Stone either lacked the research notes or the cojones to challenge this. Instead, he wheedled away unsuccessfully at finding out about his subject's mistresses, and even more fruitlessly at the suggestion that Castro was in love with his interpreter. "What are you trying to ask me?" asked the president. "I am trying to show his heart," was Stone's blush-making reply. After a pointless, joshing detour around the Viagra question, the questions began to point in the direction of pure conjecture. What is the "meaning" of Castro's life? Is there an organising principle in the universe?

Throughout, we saw Stone's face wearing the expressions of sympathy, mirth, incredulity and sycophancy that interviewers habitually counterfeit. As I say, it was deeply and close-to-home embarrassing - worse than Parkinson. Unfortunately for Stone, things got still worse than that. In April last year, just before HBO was to broadcast Comandante in the US, Castro arrested seven citizens for attempting to flee Cuba by commandeering a ferry. After trials lasting, oh, hours, three of the hijackers were executed. HBO rightly felt it could not show the documentary as it stood, and told Stone to go back and do it again, properly.

Stone cried censorship, but back he went. This time, by all accounts, he sat Castro down, asked him direct questions, followed up his replies and it was all a great success. HBO screened Looking for Fidel last month. It is hugely to Castro's credit that he was up for facing Stone again and did not walk out when his previously love-struck fan turned pro. Maybe, on the other hand, his new questions were no more than he had expected in the first place.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times