In the early ’80s, a brutal guerrilla war was going on in Nicaragua, with an army of terrorist counter-revolutionaries, or contras, fighting against the leftist Sandinista party that was in power. The contras were funded and trained by the U.S. and called “freedom fighters” by President Reagan. Most Americans didn’t really pay attention, so the cinematographer, documentarian and sometimes narrative film director Haskell Wexler – who died yesterday at the age of 93 – decided to make this fictionalized movie about it.
Eddie Guerrero (Robert Beltran, LONE WOLF MCQUADE) is an American special forces soldier following up his Vietnam tours with a secret mission in Honduras. He works with Ruben (Tony Plana, HALF PAST DEAD 1-2) to train some soldiers who go over the border into Nicaragua to fight the communist Sandanistas.
Then we meet some of these communists living on a farming cooperative. They are peasant women and teenage boys with AKs trying to defend themselves from the contras who keep coming in, burning their crops and taking their sons, forcing them to join up.
We see how that works: they come into town, spray some bullets around, throw the young men on the ground and tie them up. While they’re there Eddie doesn’t really know what’s up yet, but he wanders into an old lady’s kitchen and gets an earful about his side and how she hopes he dies. He takes one of the tortillas she’s making and eats it, so maybe he’s more of an asshole than we realized.
The contras make a speech justifying their actions and then shoot off a bunch of mortars as they take the men away. Eddie watches children being blown up… cut to him having a nice breakfast with his new girlfriend Marlena (Annette Charles, GREASE), who works for an American diplomat and stays on a fancy estate.
Later this kid Luis (Luis Torrentes) is transporting some grain and runs into some contras. They act like bringing food to the cooperative makes him a criminal, then they take him with them (and kill his horse). The contras give their captives a speech and then tell them that if they want to leave they can. Of course, you fuckin know what happens when one of them takes them up on the offer, saying he would stay but has a sick mother he needs to take care of. Eddie is laying on a hammock and his eyebrows are raised by the gunshots. Then the guy making the speech yells:
“Commandos! This is war! This isn’t a game for fags with sick mothers! Which of you wants to make the decision to become a commando in the Nicaraguan Democratic Force?”
You know what, I’m starting to think we’re not the good guys in this.
Of course this is a story about Eddie slowly questioning his mission. Slower than you would think, though. He sympathizes with young Luis, so after Ruben has been torturing the kid naked on a bed frame for hours Eddie unties his thumbs and makes him his special project. His padawan learner.
Meanwhile, his secret life is causing some tension with Marlena. They’re having a fun time out on a boat and shit and her son finds a gun in his bag and asks him if he kills kids. Awkward. She finds a giant wad of Nicaraguan bills in his clothes and starts to get suspicious and give him the cold shoulder since he won’t be honest with her. She’s from Nicaragua and her family is still there, she starts to worry about them and go back home to be with them. So she gets stuck in the middle of this.
Eddie is not what you would call a strong protagonist. He sees alot of bad shit that he is a little too lax about. It’s kinda frustrating to see him just keep looking upset at atrocities but not know what to do about it. At one point he’s got his boot off scratching his bug bites while a woman gets raped nearby.
He argues with Ruben, who says “this is what you get for hanging out with that educated bitch,” and then he keeps going along with the program. He teaches Luis to say one of my favorite phrases, “Fuck you, jack,” but also keeps training him as a soldier. The big turning point is in a scene where he goes to meet a colonel or something (not listed on his IMDb, but it’s James Karen, Frank from RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and he’s given a mission where he’s supposed to not wear his dogtags because it would look bad if an American soldier was found there.
This is too much for him. He feels like it’s acknowledging that what they’re doing is wrong. He doesn’t want to do something he can’t put his name on. But instead of trying to not do it, he does it but sneaks his dog tags in in his sock. That’s about all he can do.
I like that scene because the colonel is acting all buddy-buddy before he talks business, and he keeps looking at the help and trying to make sure they don’t hear the top secret talk. As the conversation continues he keeps looking over his shoulder and moving another level deeper into the house.
I don’t think Eddie’s as enlightened as you kinda expect a hero to end up being, because when Luis turns out to be sort of a Sandinista double agent and set him up he’s real pissed about it, he doesn’t seem to understand it. But the movie still gets across the message that if we really stand behind our actions in other countries we shouldn’t have to do them in secret.
I don’t know if this was intentional or just a result of the cinema verite approach to the movie, but I like the way the American influence is shown through t-shirts. Most notably there’s Luis wearing his Disneyland shirt:
Also there’s Marlena’s son’s Smurfs shirt:
(Yeah, I know, they’re originally Belgian, but like Jean-Claude Van Damme after them it was only when they starred in American entertainment that they became international superstars.)
In a different vein, once Luis is less innocent he graduates to this t-shirt commemorating Operation Big Pine II, a then-recent military exercise that had involved around 5,000 U.S. military personnel training with the Honduran army.
This is a watchable movie, but not particularly engaging. The story behind it is way more interesting and memorable than the actual movie, and there’s a pretty good commentary track on the DVD (which is a director’s cut, by the way). Wexler’s previous narrative movie, MEDIUM COOL, famously combined a fictional story with some documentary elements, including scenes filmed during the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention. LATINO takes a similar approach, filmed on location in Nicaragua with real soldiers and peasants, sometimes re-enacting things that they’d seen. The contra’s speeches and some of the other things they do are based on footage Wexler shot of the real contras for his 1983 documentary TARGET NICARAGUA: INSIDE A SECRET WAR.
Not surprisingly, they had some trouble making it. Some of the footage they shot was mysteriously lost when it was being developed, so they had to reshoot a bunch of stuff. Hmmm. The finished movie played the Cannes Film Festival, but doesn’t seem to have gotten much of a real theatrical release here, though I would absolutely credit that to a not very commercial movie before assuming it was shut down for its politics. Still, some reviews did attack Wexler as an un-American propagandist for sympathizing with the bad guy commie Sandinistas and for opposing the Reagan foreign policy.
Lucas first met Wexler at a race track in the early ’60s. The young future former Star Wars overlord told the experienced but not yet famous cinematographer that he wanted to go to USC film school, and Wexler hooked him up with an instructor he knew there. Years later Wexler would be credited as “visual consultant” for AMERICAN GRAFFITI for helping the cinematographers figure out how to light for the Techniscope cameras, a type often used for documentaries. He may have also had some influence over what some of us interpreted as the meaning of the movie. In an interview on the LATINO dvd he describes Lucas as politically conservative but “respectful” and says of the text about Terry the Toad that “that whole reference to the Vietnam War was part of my doing.”
Despite famously liberal Wexler’s assessment of he and his friend being “politically very, very different,” the Lucas filmography shows that they have more passions in common than just race cars and cameras. LATINO is yet another early Lucasfilm production that shares some DNA with the Star Wars prequels: a quagmire of a civil war secretly stoked by others for larger purposes, a warrior in a secret relationship with a woman despite the codes of his order, a young boy chosen and trained to fight who eventually turns on his master.
Lucas’s involvement in LATINO happened during post-production. He offered his facilities and advice in the editing. He doesn’t have a producer credit, but Lucasfilm does. I can’t wait to see what Disney does with this exciting I.P.