In the early scenes of "Fidel Castro," the new PBS documentary about the Cuban leader, you see him as a young man -- handsome, confident, tall enough to tower over everyone else in the room, already flashing the fabled charisma that would soon make him one of the 20th century's most fascinating and enduring political figures. You look at him and you notice that he has a cleft chin.
Who knew? That naked chin hasn't been seen in public since 1956, when Castro escaped into the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba with an exhausted band of 18 would-be revolutionaries and proceeded to conquer a nation. By the time he began giving interviews to American reporters and camera crews at his guerrilla headquarters, Castro had already grown his trademark bushy beard.
Produced, directed and written by filmmaker Adriana Bosch, "Fidel Castro" tells the story of the man who has ruled Cuba -- and vexed 10 American presidents -- for an astounding 46 years. The film is part of the PBS "American Experience" series, and throughout keeps the relationship between Cuba and the United States near center stage.
"I first got the idea to do the film in 1994 [after the Soviet collapse], when everybody thought Castro's days were numbered," Bosch said. "But here we are, how many years later?"
For Bosch, "Fidel Castro" was more than an exercise in telescoping a story that spans a half-century into just two hours. It was an encounter with her own past: She was born in Cuba and emigrated with her parents in 1968 at the age of 13.
Castro took power when dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country before dawn on New Year's Day 1959. In the late 1960s, revolutionary fervor was still young and strong. Bosch recalled a school assignment in which she was asked what she would do if imperialists invaded Cuba.
"My essay must have been sufficiently revolutionary in spirit," she said. "When we got the notice that our family had received the paperwork we needed to emigrate, I was called into the office at my school and they offered me asylum to stay in Cuba if I wanted."
Castro's career has seen so much adventure, controversy and incident that it is impossible to squeeze it all into one film. Some episodes have to be mentioned only briefly, others skipped altogether. We learn very little about how the gangly son of a wealthy farmer -- a young man whom classmates called "the hick" when he came to the big city, Havana, for his schooling -- developed his radical politics. We also learn little of the military tactics he used to defeat Batista's well-equipped army.
But Bosch is clever about choosing what details to include. Her archival research unearthed fascinating early photographs of Castro's family -- his father, a Spaniard who came to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War; his younger brother, Raul, who later fought with Fidel in the mountains and now is his second-in-command and successor; and especially his mother, semiliterate but formidable. A look into her eyes gives a hint of where Castro's great strength and determination come from.
Bosch's film later notes that when Castro began the process of agrarian reform, confiscating the holdings of large landowners for use by the peasants, the first property he seized was his own family's farm. Castro's mother, the film notes, never forgave her son.
"Fidel Castro" devotes considerable time to the events that define the relationship between Cuba and its giant neighbor to the north -- the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which helped consolidate Castro's power; the following year's Cuban missile crisis, which left Castro bitterly disappointed in his Soviet allies; and the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought many thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States and changed the face of South Florida.
Bosch does not give similar attention to the most recent crisis -- the 1999 pull-and-tug over Elián González, the telegenic young boy rescued from the sea and eventually returned to his father in Cuba.
"Fidel Castro" acknowledges both Castro's charisma and his cruelty -- the most gruesome scenes are the execution by firing squad of two Batista loyalists shortly after the revolution. Castro's prisons also are shown in all their squalor, and the film tells of one political prisoner who was locked in his cell to die of thirst on Castro's direct order.
But the film is never heavy-handed, and that in itself is an achievement: Despite many attempts through many channels, Bosch never received permission from the Cuban government to film in Cuba. That meant she had to rely heavily on Cuban exiles as her talking heads, and this could have given "Fidel Castro" a bitter taste. But the film is much more layered and complex than that. It is essentially a biography, and it is an indictment only insofar as Castro's own life indicts him.
"Fidel Castro" does not try to divine the nation's future once the 78-year-old Castro finally passes from the scene. It's enough to consider what he has meant for the island.
"Cuba as a nation was born in 1902," Bosch said. "That means that half of Cuban history has happened under Fidel Castro."
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: FIDEL CASTRO
Monday at 9 p.m. on MPT; 10 p.m on WETA