Here Was Cuba: Film Review

The doc examines the Cold War clash that almost triggered World War III.

The sobering Irish documentary looks back at the hair-raising nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Apocalyptic sci-fi blockbusters are back with a bang this year, from Oblivion to After Earth, World War Z to Elysium. But Here Was Cuba reminds us how a world-ending Armageddon scenario came terrifyingly close to happening in real life.

Arriving soon after the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this Irish-made documentary is billed as the first full nonfiction feature on the historic Cold War clash between John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro that almost triggered a global nuclear showdown. Premiering this week at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK, Here Was Cuba is a classy piece of work with solid appeal as both history lesson and gripping true-story thriller. PBS is listed in the credits, which suggests the film may have a small-screen future in the U.S., but further festival outings seem highly likely first.

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The action spans 13 days in October 1962, when American spy planes confirmed the Soviet Union had been secretly smuggling nuclear missiles into Castro’s Cuba. An angry JFK responded with a tense naval blockade, while military hawks on both sides prepared for all-out war. The filmmakers deploy some fascinating historical sources, including Kennedy’s own scribbled notes, plus scratchy audio recordings of his conversations with controversial Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and notorious USAF general Curtis LeMay, who famously inspired George C. Scott’s trigger-happy warmonger character in Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove. At the height of the crisis, LeMay advised JFK to “fry” Cuba, later branding his uneasy peace deal with Khrushchev “the greatest defeat in our history.”

The guest list of first-hand commentators is also impressive, from White House insiders to elderly KGB generals and high-ranking Cuban communist party officials. The late Kennedy advisor Ted Sorensen, in one of his last interviews, recalls the pressure-cooker mood inside the Oval Office. Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet leader, unpacks his father’s ambivalent feelings towards the “Evil Empire” of America. Most moving is the anguished testimony of Alexay Ryapenko, a Russian army veteran who shot down the only military fatality of the crisis, USAF spy-plane pilot Rudy Anderson. “I hope I won’t look like a murderer,” Ryapenko says with a haunted expression that speaks volumes.

Pleasingly, Here Was Cuba does not linger too long on over-familiar anecdotes of saber-rattling world leaders playing dice with the end of civilization. Instead the film teases out some compelling human stories from behind the superpower brinkmanship, including the sweltering discomfort of Russian sailors shipped into Cuba on storm-lashed cargo freighters, and the hair-raising confession of the Soviet subcommander who suffered a “nervous breakdown” in the thick of the crisis and almost launched a unilateral nuclear strike on Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City. As one interviewee notes: “This is a story of men, not governments.”

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Subtitled “a cautionary tale,” Here Was Cuba overreaches a little in its closing stages, when the filmmakers attempt to draw parallels with 21st-century Iran, North Korea and Israel. In a post-Cold War context, these comparisons feel simplistic. Otherwise, this is a pleasingly serious and thoughtful documentary with a handsome visual aesthetic, intercutting tinted monochrome archive clips of atomic-age devastation with poetically shot footage of contemporary Washington, Moscow and Havana. Ray Harman’s moody, throbbing score also helps amplify the ever-present sense of impending doom. This tension is skillfully sustained throughout, given that everybody watching knows the ultimately peaceful outcome of this real-life end-of-the-world thriller.

Production Companies: Crossing the Line Productions, Irish Film Board

Producers: Siobhan Ward, John Murray

Directors: John Murray, Emer Reynolds

Starring: Ted Sorensen, Sergei Khrushchev

Cinematographer: Kate McCullough

Editor: Emer Reynolds

Music: Ray Harman

Sales Agent: Crossing the Line Productions,

78 minutes