For seven frenzied months, between a dramatic inner-tube rescue off the coast of Florida in 1999 and an armed raid on a modest Miami house, 6-year-old Elián Gonzalez was more than just a boy who'd lost his mother: for many, his situation — Cuban refugee? American captive? Castro pawn? — was a chance for a cold war to get hot again.
"Elián," a comprehensive documentary retelling of that fierce custody battle (with updates), lays out the ways the story's warring guardians — biological and ideological, legal and emotional — turned a child into a puppet, and possibly changed the course of everything from news coverage to American politics and U.S.-Cuba relations.
In securing interviews with so many key players — Elián; his father, Juan Miguel; Miami cousin Marisleysis whose tears galvanized the Cuban exile community, negotiators and politicians — directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, with the help of narrator Raul Esparza, do justice to all sides.
The result is that your sympathy and judgment coexist, no matter how wince-inducing it gets with each turbulent turn. Context is everything here. (Just when you're ready to curse a ravenous media warming to 24-hour news cycles, you remember Elián's American relatives allowed it all too.)
Eventually it's Elián himself — an inscrutably innocent-looking boy in news footage, a reflective young man for the filmmakers — who communicates the surest truth: emerging from such a firestorm knowing who you are is its own reward.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood