Film Review: Elián

Another 1990s media spectacle gets a long-overdue autopsy in this slick and riveting documentary about how the family custody battle over Elián Gonzalez turned into a political firestorm.
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It seems fitting that the last great all-encompassing story of the 1990s would take place in Florida just months before the hanging-chad debacle of the 2000 election, involve Cold War tensions which that decade’s myopic intellects had assumed were dead and buried, and leave everyone involved feeling somewhat awful. The decade saw the 24/7 news cycle roar to life in spectacularly messy fashion through round-the-clock coverage of everything from the O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey cases to the siege in Waco, Texas. Like those other media tsunami, the Elián Gonzalez case stormed in from nowhere, tore everything to pieces, and was gone before anybody knew what had happened. It started with a five-year-old boy found clinging to an innertube off the coast of Florida and ended with federal agents storming into a Little Havana house, assault rifles at the ready. Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s Elián tells the stranger-than-fiction story of what happened not just in between but afterward.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1999, fishermen Donato Dalyrmple and Sam Ciancio pulled Elián from the water. Elián’s mother, her boyfriend and most of the other passengers on a rickety boat had drowned trying to escape to Florida. Elián was taken in by his cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez in Miami. At first it looked like the dramatic rescue could end happily once Elián was reunited with his father Juan Miguel back in Cuba. But much of Florida’s Cuban exile community had spent the decades since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 waging nonstop political, and occasionally guerrilla, war against him. They were not about to let this handy political symbol slip away.

For his part, Castro was delighted to ratchet up his rhetoric once Washington proved unable to separate Elián from Marisleysis without an ugly public fight in an election year. In short order, Cuban-American politicians slapped Elián’s face on fundraising mailers, Marisleysis and her relatives ran to every microphone they could find to demand their right to keep Elián, and Castro rallied millions in the streets. Meanwhile, Elián turned six in a strange country far from his father.

The first sign that Golden and McDonnell’s documentary isn’t going to be just another clip show appears early on, with the appearance of the rarely seen and now grown-up Elián. “You may remember me, you may not,” he states in the assertive manner of a man who might be a little tired at this point of being a symbol for this, that or the other. The movie keeps him mostly in reserve for its last stretch, a reflective coda in which he muses on his life after the world’s most televised family dispute. Before then, it relies on a vast trove of news footage—appropriately, the movie is being distributed by CNN Films—and a deep shelf of current interviews to tell its story.

This is the right choice, as so much of the Elián story involved people seizing him as a symbol for their cause or a vessel for their emotional needs. The movie is layered with regrettable behavior, particularly Elián being continually shoved in front of microphones and cameras. But the filmmakers don’t repeat the mistakes of that coverage and don’t jump to easy conclusions. They are also happy to present provocative but not-quite-substantiated claims—like one made that the case delivered Florida to the Republicans in the 2000 election, meaning (as one interviewee says) that Elián led in some way to the Iraq War—and bring in the likes of Carl Hiaasen to undercut them with a judicious dose of realism.

Alex Gibney is executive producer, but his stylistic imprint is not much in evidence. Elián works from a solidly researched base, provided by Golden’s work as a reporter covering the case at the time. But the factual focus of the story often finds itself getting swept away on tidal emotions, which the generally more cool-headed Gibney would tend to keep in check. For the most part, this feels less like deliberate artistic and journalistic choices than it does a reflection of the tensions that had been simmering in plain sight. Southern Florida’s Cuban-American exile community had been venting their spleen at the Castro regime for decades with little to show for it. Once their leaders heard that a defenseless refugee from the island that encompassed so much of their dreams and fears was about to be sent back, they finally had a cause to rally for in their own backyard, not 90 miles off the coast. Many of the protests and media events shown here, as negotiations between the highly cautious government and the grandstanding representatives of Elián’s Florida family broke down, verge on the brink of hysteria.

Golden and McDonnell provide enough context here, with tightly packaged pocket histories, that those emotions don’t come out of nowhere. But over the course of their story, this dramatic but seemingly simple case keeps blowing up in the face of every attempt to forge a compromise. Finally, the infamous climactic Associated Press photograph of the officer seeming to lunge at a terrified Elián starts to seem less like another Janet Reno public-relations disaster. Through the lens of this captivating documentary, the episode appears now more like the unavoidable consequence of intractable opinions, magnified and uglified by the seductive fog of fleeting fame and political mania. 

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