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The U.S. foreign policy of “regime change” is nothing new, as this gripping documentary demonstrates. Drawing on recently declassified White House files, The Day That Lasted 21 Years revisits the right-wing military coup that ousted Brazil’s democratically elected, left-leaning, Kennedy-style President João “Jango” Goulart from office in March 1964. Goulart’s fatal error was in being too friendly to Communist China and Cuba, as well as seeking to reform land rights and extract higher taxes from US companies. The result: he was overthrown, allowing a string of brutal dictators to rule Latin America’s largest nation for the next two decades.
Director Camilo Tavares presents this stark history lesson in a no-frills, televisual style, so he is fortunate to have so many colorful characters and such a juicy spy-movie plot to sweep him along. While the broad framework of events may be familiar to casual students of U.S. and Brazilian history, The Day That Lasted 21 Years fills in the canvas with plenty of absorbing detail. Further festival interest seems likely, though the film’s most obvious outlet outside domestic markets is sure to be on the small screen.
The twists and turns of the plot against Goulart play like a vintage Graham Greene or John LeCarre yarn. It comes as no surprise that Machiavellian US ambassador Lincoln Gordon was lobbying his Washington paymasters for the coup, even while he sipped cocktails with the Brazilian President, nor that the CIA were stirring up dissent by funding virulently anti-Goulart groups. When the crunch came, a US Navy task force was even parked offshore on “routine” manoeuvres in case the generals required extra muscle.
In the event, Goulart conceded defeat within hours and fled across the border without need for direct foreign intervention. So while anti-American conspiracy theorists will find much to savor here, including scratchy vintage audio of both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson appearing to endorse regime change, they may also be disappointed that the coup plotters also had ample domestic support among all sections of Brazilian society.
Clearly made on a limited budget, The Day That Lasted 21 Years feels a little thin in places. Stylistically, Tavares relies heavily on a plain, conventional patchwork of archive news footage and talking-head interviews. And though he manages to track down a couple of old regime hands still prepared to endorse the coup and subsequent crackdown, almost everybody interviewed takes a predictably America-bashing stance. Understandably so, of course, but the film would still have benefited from a few more balancing voices explaining the broader Cold War context that informed jittery U.S. foreign policy at the time, especially so soon after Fidel Castro’s seizure of Cuba and JFK’s assassination.
There is much more to this engrossing story, not least Goulart’s long exile in Uruguay and Argentina, ending when he died of an alleged heart attack in 1976. Decades later, evidence finally surfaced strongly suggesting he was poisoned by Brazil’s secret police. This shadowy episode deserves a documentary of its own, and indeed just such a film was included in the Rio festival line-up, Jango Report by Paulo Henrique Fontanelle.
Tavares seems to rush the film’s closing section, spooling breathlessly through 21 years of authoritarian Brazilian rulers in barely a minute. The 1969 kidnapping of U.S. ambassador Charles Elbrick forms a dramatic postscript to the coup, but the dismantling of democracy and brutal oppression of political dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s deserves greater emphasis. The Brazilian people ultimately paid a much higher price than Goulart. This excellent film is not the whole story, but serves as an effective primer on a rich, fascinating, shameful chapter in recent history.
Venue: Rio festival screening, October 2
Production companies: Pequi Filmes
Cast: Carlos Fico, Peter Kornbluh, Newton Cruz, João Goulart, John F. Kennedy
Director: Camilo Tavares
Producers: Karla Ladeia
Writer: Camilo Tavares
Cinematography: Márcio Menezes, André Macedo, Cleumo Segond, Luiz Miyasaka
Editors: César Tuma, Verônica Saenz
Music: Dino Vicente
Sales company: Pequi Filmes
Rating TBC, 77 minutes
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