Oliver Stone gets the ax

Posted: Apr 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Tim Robbins, call your office. The "chill wind" he detected in the nation is at it again. This time, HBO has decided to pull "Commandante," Oliver Stone's adulatory "documentary" about Fidel Castro, from its May lineup.

"In light of recent alarming events in Cuba," an HBO spokesman explained, the network decided "not to air Oliver Stone's film in May as scheduled. Had we aired the film in March, I don't think we would have had an issue with it. But now, the arrests and trials are an important piece of what's going on in Cuba, and the film's incomplete."

It's all a matter of timing. Castro has been rounding up and arresting dissidents for decades -- but that wouldn't have affected HBO's willingness to air a fawning tribute. It was just so unseemly for Castro to do his dirty business just before the film was about to air.

One wonders whether Oliver Stone is embarrassed by the dragnet Castro has spread over the island. (Of course, one wonders whether Stone is capable of shame.) What does the good director think when he reads of more than 80 independent journalists and human rights activists arrested?

On April 2, 2003, a number of Cuban men hijacked a ferry and attempted to make the 90-mile trip to Florida. The ferry ran out of gas and was towed back to Cuba. Last week, three of the hijackers were given one-day trials and then executed by firing squad. Four others received between two and 30 years in prison.

Hijacking is serious business, of course, but these executions seem to be part of a wider crackdown on dissent. (Just by the way, why do liberal groups always say that the United States and China are the only countries in the world that practice capital punishment?) Hijacking may deserve the death penalty, but not after a one day trial. Besides, it looks pretty obvious that these hijackers were motivated by a desperate hope to escape Cuba, and nothing more sinister than that.

Castro's crackdown began late last year, when the security services began arresting dissidents for offenses like running small businesses and selling food or other goods from their homes -- widespread practices that permit Cubans to scrape by, but which are illegal under Cuba's communist system. The human rights movement in Cuba has been picking up steam despite the regime's ferocious repression.

Recently, a petition demanding free elections garnered more than 20,000 signatures in a country of 11 million. Now more than 80 dissidents are being tried in what the State Department has condemned as "kangaroo courts." No outside observers. No independent journalists. And, it need hardly be added, since Cuba is one of the last Stalinist nations on earth, no possibility of acquittal.

According to Ann Louise Bardach, writing on The New York Times op-ed page, "Commandante," Stone's encomium to Castro, depicted the dictator "in a chummy mood, affable, playful, sometimes defensive, yet exposing more of his personality than most Americans are used to seeing." At the recent Sundance Film Festival, Stone described Castro as "warm and bright ... a very driven man, a very moral man. He's very concerned about his country. He's selfless in that way."

But not quite selfless enough to hold a free election, eh Oliver?

In a way, this story is the same old same old. Lefty Hollywood type lionizes a communist thug -- ignoring copious evidence that the man is a despot and a monster. Like Leni Riefenstahl producing admiring film portraits of Hitler, Oliver Stone is able to find the positive side of Castro.

But there is a new twist to this story. HBO has pulled the plug. What got into them? Am I wrong in thinking this would not have played out as it did absent the Iraq War? Surely the revelations about Saddam's torture chambers and children's prison have diminished everyone's tolerance for dictators.

Well, maybe not Oliver Stone's. If he and Michael Moore are seeking a good retirement spot, they might consider Havana.