Here Was Cuba is a gripping examination of a moment when the world came closest to self-destruction. Matt Micucci was at the Irish premiere of the documentary at the 25th Galway Film Fleadh.
The story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is often taught in schools as just another chapter in the Cold War. Furthermore, it’s very hard to find a film about it which is devoid of preconceptions and doesn’t take side, which is one of the elements which make Here Was Cuba, the feature documentary by John Murray and Emer Reynolds, which screened at the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday, very rewarding. The film is a gripping examination of that important event in modern history, which portrays the moment when the world came closest to self-destruction in the three way nuclear battle between Kennedy’s US, Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba.
Through great research and an exciting pace, the film is insightful and entertaining in equal measure. “We wanted to make it as exciting as we could and to evoke a kind of cold war thriller feeling,” explained Reynolds. “We thought that if we were successful the audience might suspend for a little while their knowledge of the outcome and feel the reality of the event as it unfolded on the screen. We also wanted to tap into the personal stories and this was perhaps one of the last times some of the participants would have been able to tell their story.”
Indeed, Reynolds and Murray were able to get priceless first-hand accounts of the events through some interviews of people directly involved in the conflict from all its sides. Some of them felt really intimate. The account given by the Soviet who pressed the button and killed Rudolf Anderson, the U-2 pilot who was shot down over Cuba, thus making the only casualty of the missile crisis, feels quite personal; it was his first time being interviewed. A closer look into Khrushchev is also provided by the presence of his son Nikita, whose final speech is particularly harrowing.
Reynolds gave an example of the effectiveness of the neutral approach and accuracy of the research when she talked on an incident involving Soviet nuclear submarines. “The tale in the film is often told about this heroic Russian second in command who refused to press the button when his commander had kind of lost the plot and was insisting that they launch one of their nuclear weapons. Our research revealed a more complex story which was more accidental. It’s also possible that these incidents happened in multiple subs.”
“What struck me about Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev was they measured response as they got deeper and deeper into it,” observed Murray. “Thankfully, they came to realise what they were playing with, a basic humanity came out even though they were surrounded by very hawkish people telling them to press that button and go to war, especially in Kennedy’s case. It makes you ask yourself, what could have happened with someone with a more aggressive personality in either camp. In also makes you think of how the story parallels today, whether in the White House, the Kremlin or anywhere else.”
Some stunning photography work and clever use of music strengthen the message of the film, which is ultimately to avoid falling into a situation like the Cuban Missile Crisis again, which is why the subtitle of the film is “A Cautionary Tale”. Yet, the film doesn’t really feel patronising and even ends with a series of universal messages by some of the subjects that seem heartfelt.