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Just in time for Halloween, two generations of America’s boogieman syndrome. Fidel Castro has never received a fitting film treatment in the U.S. (though Oliver Stone is allegedly on the case). True believer Estela Bravo doesn’t quite get us behind the dictator, but with a pantheon of big names (Harry Belafonte, Arthur Schlesinger, and Gabriel García Márquez, who claims Fidel edits his books), plus miles of state-archived footage (Castro chopping sugar cane, a priceless 1959 Edward R. Murrow interview), we get an image of Big Papa spanning history, rather than suspending it. Bravo, a lifelong chronicler of Latin American struggle, privileges the post-colonial catalyst over the Soviet toady, predictably skimping on the hell of everyday life in the post-Gorbachev “special period” as she follows Cuba’s shaky re-emergence into the globalist present. The tone is doting, but not cloying: Castro loves basketball, he hangs out with Nelson Mandela, he has a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly, he reminds the director of Jesus. What’s not to love? By the time Jesse Helms drools by to drop some totally ’90s proto-Osama-wanted-poster doggerel, U.S. post-Cold War displacement seems not only criminal but comic.
But in a quaint kinda way. For a really scary monster, Stealing the Fire unravels the roots of Iraq’s hobbled-but-horny nuclear weapons program, in terms that’ll have you packing for Nebraska. John S. Friedman and Eric Nadler trace Saddam’s bomb lust back to Heisenberg, the Nazis, and a company called Degussa built on confiscated Jewish capital. The story’s sniveling swingman is Karl-Heinz Schaab, a Dilbertian technician who boosted information on centrifuge secrets from Degussa and sold it to Iraqi agents in the late ’80s. Pretty horrific, huh? Well, placing blame sorta misses the point in a world of matrixed self-interest where all is equally just and unjust. This is the type of story that gives John Le Carré bed sweats—skating through Brazilian jails, Egyptian hideouts, Russian prison camps, past cats with names like Zippe and Boetcher, from Auschwitz to Amsterdam, right through the Pentagon and straight into Don DeLillo country. Its black center (or lack thereof) comes courtesy of Schaab’s chain-smoking defense lawyer, Michael Rietz: “Man is bad, world is evil.” Boo.