'Elian': Film Review

Adds context and texture to a familiar story.

Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell's documentary recounts the story of the 5-year-old Cuban boy who became the center of a political firestorm.

“What happened to me wasn’t a movie, it was a true story,” comments the now-grown Elian Gonzalez about the media and political firestorm that ensued after he was rescued off the coast of Florida in 1999. But of course every sensational subject eventually becomes a movie, so his story is now retold in Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s comprehensive documentary adding context and a modern-day update to the tale. Bound to bring back memories for those who followed the events and prove fascinating to anyone unfamiliar with them, Elian should emrge as a ratings grabber when it premieres on CNN after its theatrical release.

To jog your memories, the 5-year-old Elian was discovered clinging to an inner tube by two fishermen. He was the only survivor of a group of Cubans, including his mother, who had desperately attempted to make their way to the U.S. Elian was taken in by relatives in Miami that included his 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis, who developed a fierce emotional attachment to him.

Tragically, it wasn’t long before the little boy became a political football. Miami’s Cuban-American population wanted him to remain in the U.S. to flout their defiance of Fidel Castro. The U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Janet Reno, wanted to send him back to avoid a dust-up with Cuba, but was leery of sparking a violent confrontation and feared political fallout. Elian’s father, who had remained in Cuba, made emotional appeals for his son’s return, with Castro soon loudly taking up the cause.

At the center of it all was the fragile, confused Elian, who was manipulated by the people around him for their own ends. One of the fishermen, Donato Dalrymple, saw an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame, thrusting himself in front of reporters at every turn (at one point he’s seen helpfully spelling his name for him). Marisleysis Gonzalez similarly used the media to help build support for Elian staying in Miami. The film includes footage of Elian supposedly yelling at a plane flying overhead, “I want you to take me back to Cuba!” and also a video of him emphatically telling his father that he doesn’t want to go back. Taken to Disney World, he became frightened while on the “It’s a Small World” ride. “Is this boat going to sink?” he asked worriedly.

When the family refused to give Elian up voluntarily, their house was eventually raided by menacing, armed federal agents. The photo of one of them aiming a rifle at the terrified Elian became iconic and won the Pulitzer Prize. Elian was returned to Cuba, where he was lovingly treated like a grandson by Castro, who remained close to him for the rest of his life.

The documentary, executive produced by Alex Gibney, at times strains credibility, as when it suggests that Al Gore might have lost Florida in the 2000 election as a result of the public relations fiasco (the idea is quickly debunked by author/columnist Carl Hiassen, who rightly points out that hanging chads in Palm Beach County probably had more to do with it). But for the most part, the film chronicles the complex tale cogently and effectively, using extensive archival footage as well as contemporary interviews that help put the events in context. Most fascinatingly, its coda features footage of the now 23-year-old Elian who still lives in Cuba and reveres the late Castro. Articulate and self-assured, he seems none the worse for his childhood trauma. Talking about the current state of relations between the two countries, he comments that Barack Obama’s history-making trip to the island country was important, but that it also “left much to be desired.”

Production companies: CNN Films, Fine Point Films, Jigsaw Productions
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Directors: Tim Golden, Ross McDonnell
Screenwriter: Tim Golden
Producer: Trevor Birney
Executive producers: Alex Gibney, Amy Entelis, Kate Townsend, Mary Callery, Andrew Reid, Greg Phillips, Jonathan Ford, Maiken Baird, Brendan J. Byrne, Richard Perello, Stacey Offman
Director of photography: Ross McDonnell
Editors: Michael J. Palmer, Hannah Vanderian
Composer: McKenzie Stubbert

108 minutes