Rogues Harbor Studios, 2007
directed by Cristina Khuly, written by Douglas Eger and Cristina Khuly
88 minutes, rated PG-13

In 1996, the Cuban air force shot down two civilian light planes who weren't even flying over their territorial waters, killing four people.  It was a huge step backwards for any kind of civil relations between Fidel Castro's government and... well, the rest of the human race.  This film is the story of what those planes were doing there and how things escalated to that point.  Its highlight is a dissection of the incident using simple 3D graphics and pilot voice recordings -- including the grotesque gloating of the Cuban pilots, in quite coarse language, at their murder of unarmed civilians.

This comes late in the film.  The early part is devoted to the background of the organization that was flying the planes: Hermanos al Rescate, or Brothers to the Rescue.  (And also to the subject of What It's Like To Be Cuban-American, which I found to be largely a waste of time.)  Brothers to the Rescue was begun when thousands of people were fleeing Cuba on rafts, and US policy at the time was to treat them as entitled to political asylum.  Many of the rafters were so poorly prepared -- or just so poor -- that without help, their odds of getting to Florida were reportedly only about 25%.  So Brothers to the Rescue patrolled the ocean in small planes, mainly Cessna Skymasters, looking for rafts.  When they found one they'd radio the position to the Coast Guard, and maybe throw them some water or other emergency supplies.

Much is made of the nobility and heroism of this work.  So it feels like kind of a gyp when we learn, pretty late in the film, that Hermanos al Rescate were no longer doing this lifesaving work at the time of the shootdown.  Because by then, the Clinton administration had made a deal with Cuba which helped ease relations, and part of it was that Cuban rafters would now be treated like any other illegal aliens and sent back.  And so the Brothers turned themselves into a purely political anti-Castro organization, and used their planes to dump propaganda into Havana.

I suppose it's only natural to try to ennoble the organization and its martyrs.  But it still leaves me feeling a bit like someone pulled a bait-and-switch on me.

A bunch of time is also spent on memorializing each of the four dead: Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales (who was himself rescued from a raft), Mario de la Pea, and Armando Alejandre, Jr.  Unfortunately this process isn't notably successful; the guys don't emerge as distinct characters very much.  Again, it's understandable, particularly since Alejandre was the director's uncle.  But it ends up being, for disinterested general audiences, a substantial number of film minutes that don't accomplish much.

When it comes to the incident itself, though, and its political background, Cristina Khuly has done a fine job at digging up the relevant materials and the right people to interview.  The film is at its best in covering the specifics of the shootdown... how dissidents were then trying to organize within Cuba, how Castro planted a mole in the Brothers to learn their flight plans, how the Cubans fudged their territorial borders to do the deed, how high up the Cuban chain of command the orders must have come from, and how the US government responded during and after.

Then it's back with the Florida exiles, some of whom almost seem heartbroken that Clinton didn't decide to bomb their homeland in response.

The larger question of what US policy toward Cuba ought to be is never really raised much.  Whenever I see this question come up, I always wonder why nobody mentions Cuba and China in the same breath.  Because our policies toward the two are completely contradictory.  For every rationale we've got to back our current Cuba policy of hostility and economic sanctions, the same logic dictates that we ought to be treating China the same way.  And for every rationale behind being friendly with China and drawing it into the Capitalist world market, the same logic argues that Cuba should be treated likewise.  These two policies cannot both be right.

So why do we pursue these contradictory policies, and so carefully avoid drawing any parallels between them?  I believe it probably comes down to the simple fact that Chinese Americans aren't agitating about China the way Cuban Americans are about Cuba.  There's a powerful lesson here for any group with a political goal.  Despite some griping in the film about the poor lot of misunderstood exiles, Cuban-Americans are one of the most pandered-to of political interest groups, and they do get the majority of what they ask for.  Chinese-Americans, as a group, simply haven't been asking.

To summarize: this is not the finest grade of documentary filmmaking, but I will recommend it for those interested in Cuban issues, for the solid reporting it does on the specifics of the incident.  For others... this may not be the most interesting choice you can make in a documentary.

I'm sure the intent was to leave you mainly remembering the lost pilots and spotters, but really, the image that will linger with you is just the sight of Cessna Skymasters -- planes with a striking elegance of design -- cruising over blue water.