JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Haskell Wexler filming Bound for Glory in 1975, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Cinematopher.

The incorporation of documentary footage, which Wexler uses in Latino, was something he had done much earlier in Medium Cool with shots of the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention.

Latino's epigraph.

Shooting Latino in an actual war zone.

 

The Nicaraguan people as actors.

Eddie in uniform as a Green Beret.

The film portrays how and why the Nicaraguan people fight.

Training the Contras in the ...

... U.S. Big Pine maneuvers in Honduras.

“Being a soldier keeps me on a real even keel.”

It is unlikely that such a friendship could be forged in these circumstances.

Family ties and family pride in him as a Green Beret are part of Eddie's mindset. Here he takes farewell from his younger brother in East LA.

 

 

Haskell Wexler's Latino:
an "ethnic" soldier's story

Haskell Wexler is a renowned and highly awarded cinematographer (Academy Awards for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1967 and Bound for Glory, 1976; Motion Picture Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996). At the same time, he is a politically active filmmaker on the Left. One writer refers to Wexler as an

"activist artist who has admirably balanced his yin and yang energies. While working successfully for four decades within the commercial film industry, he has also made radical documentaries that are vehicles for his political activism as well as invitations for audience comment and education." (Wunsch n.p.)

Wexler's influential feature Medium Cool (1969) is still considered groundbreaking for its blend of fictional story and political reality, its use of documentary-style camerawork and actual documentary footage shot during the 1968 Chicago Democratic national convention and the riots that accompanied it.[8][open endnotes in new window] The plot of that film, whose title alludes to Marshall McLuhan's distinction between hot and cool media, involves a TV cameraman's relationship with a Vietnam war widow and her son, but it depicts, above all, the man's rise to political consciousness. Wexler's many documentaries to date have commented on U.S. politics and social injustices since the 1960s.[9] He also worked on several documentaries devoted to Latin American politics. In a tribute to Wexler as "The People's Cinematographer," filmmaker Saul Landau writes about their collaboration on Target Nicaragua: Inside a Secret War (1983):

"We finished Target Nicaragua in early 1983, before the prestige press had reported that the CIA had engineered a covert war against Nicaragua. But PBS didn't air the show until The New York Times and The Washington Post had run their own stories formally revealing the CIA's $19 million effort. Only a third of the public TV stations ran it."

"'Who are they keeping this a secret from?' Haskell asked. 'Every Nicaraguan knows the CIA is waging a war. Only the American public remains in the dark. '"

"A year later, Haskell returned to Nicaragua to write and direct Latino, hoping that it would expose the contra atrocities to a mass public. Latino finally debuted but fared little better than Target Nicaragua. The distribution company pulled it from the theaters after it received less than great reviews and poor box-office ratings." (Landau n.p. )

The film's low box office in part results from its aesthetic shortcomings. While the main characters are played "with conviction" (Canby n.p.), the acting quality is otherwise uneven. The script uses both perfunctory and contrived plotting devices,[11] and dialogue fraught with too many explications of the situation in Nicaragua and the characters' motivations. Indeed, the script is so openly didactic that its New York Times reviewer "almost expect[ed] to be tested on what you've learned." (Canby n.p.) Latino makes strong use of documentary-style elements and emphasizes its factuality in its epigraph:

 "The story of Latino is fiction. The events depicted are fact."

However, it uses a less sophisticated blend of fiction and the real than in Medium Cool and the documentary-style footage primarily serves the film's political mission, as, for instance, when the opening sequence explains (literally, in voice-over) the background and state of affairs in Nicaragua. But other scenes with the Nicaraguan people have more emotional poignancy. The film's images of  raided towns and local violence manage to convey the plight of the civilian population, and the old woman who twice curses the U.S. soldier remains a haunting presence for the audience as well as for the film's protagonist.

An old Nicaraguan townsperson curses the soldiers ...

... and remains a memorable figure in the film.

While Latino has aesthetic problems and makes an overt political critique, the plot remains interesting in the way it develops the story of its main character, who becomes aware of his Latino identity and that identity's paradoxical significance as he takes part in a covert war in Latin America. My subsequent discussion will focus on this narrative development and how the film's fictional biography develops various aspects of a conflict between racial/ethnic and military identity.

When the film's action starts in 1983, Eddie Guerrero (played by Robert Beltran), is a 34-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War. He is a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, the so-called Green Berets, who often operate undercover and, among other tasks, train and command military and police personnel of friendly states. As an officer, Eddie looks back on a successful military career. His telling Spanish name, Guerrero, however, indicates both the character's backstory and the forthcoming dramatic conflict: Eddie serves as a "warrior" in the United States Armed Forces, but he also has a Latino name and personal identity.

During his mission against the Sandinistas, Eddie Guerrero's identity as a U.S. soldier is increasingly undermined. We see his growing doubts about the legitimacy of the operation in which he is engaged and his growing identification with the alleged "enemy." He becomes increasingly aware of his status as an ethnic subaltern within the U.S. military which uses his bilingual fluency and appearance as tools in an imperialist intervention.[13] And above all, he becomes sensitive to his role in an operation directed against other "Latinos." The degree to which Eddie feels alienated from his role as a professional soldier is foregrounded by the film's parallel portrayal of how and why the Nicaraguan people fight. The residents of El Porvenir, a Sandinista cooperative, take up arms for a cause with which they fully identify. They fight an enemy who threatens their lives, the results of their labor, and their political ideals. And they fight a true people's war that turns men, women, the old, and the young into (temporary) warriors.

Everyone fights in a people's war: "If I had some helicopters and rockets ... ... I'd get rid of those sons-of-bitches contras in a few hours."

Latino negotiates Eddie's experience of conflicting identities with particular emphasis on two important signifiers of a person's identity: the name and the body, both of which the narrative expressly ties together. One of the things that makes the film unique as a war film is how it presents the Mexican-American warrior as defined by different but connected notions of the body: As a soldier, Eddie's body "belongs" to the military and, implicitly, to the nation he serves. At the same time, his body bears the marks of his ethnicity and it is also, of course, the site of his very personal needs and desires. Furthermore, Eddie is presented as interacting with various social bodies: the military community ; his family back in City Terrace, East LA ; and the family he would like to form with his new lover, the middle-class Nicaraguan agronomist Marlena (played by Annette Cardona) and her little son.

Temporally, the plot advances relatively straightforwardly. With his best friend and co-veteran, Sgt. Ruben Treviño (played by Tony Plana), Eddie is deployed into an operation connected to the official Big Pine maneuvers in Honduras.[14] That operation itself is "not public knowledge," as Eddie is told during his mission briefing. The men train Contra fighters in a camp in Honduras and lead them into the Honduran-Nicaraguan borderland. At first, Eddie does not mind this task, being used to covert operations as a Green Beret. His loyalty and military service have brought him a secure position in U.S. society and the possibility of a materially comfortable life. He knows his career has given his life a stability it might not otherwise have had. When his lover Marlena expresses her doubts about his activities he retorts:

"I'm 34 years old. I'm Special Forces Green Beret. A professional soldier. I did three lousy tours in Vietnam. … Being a soldier keeps me on a real even keel. Now you wanna complicate that."

Eddie first meets Marlena on a U.S.-owned farm in Honduras, where she works as a pest-control specialist.  Her husband, a drunkard from whom she is separated, was Honduran, but Marlena is Nicaraguan by birth, and her family still live in Nicaragua. Eddie is increasingly troubled by his mission and shows signs of misgiving as he witnesses how Nicaraguan men are coerced into the Contra militia, Nicaraguan villages are raided, their inhabitants killed and raped, and harvests destroyed. He even fraternizes with the "enemy" when he befriends Luis (played by Luis Torrentes), a young and naïve man from El Porvenir, who is kidnapped by the Contras. Luis is tortured for refusing to enter their militia but then gives in and serves under Eddie's personal supervision and protection. This is one of the film's less credible plot moves. While it might seem plausible that Luis feels gratitude towards Eddie and even develops some admiration for him, it is hard to believe that Eddie, an experienced soldier, would fully trust and even give a weapon to a man whom his comrade Ruben has recently helped to torture. Quite obviously, Eddie's older-brother attitude towards the young Nicaraguan is meant to stress how Eddie's identity as a U.S. soldier is beginning to crumble.

Luis is a Nicaragua youth captured by the Contras, and ... ... is tortured because he does not want to fight with them.

Eddie also empathizes with other victims of the Contras and starts to relate them to members of his own family: The old woman who curses him for being involved in the Nicaraguan war reminds him of his mother (whom the film significantly presents as speaking only Spanish), and like Luis, another young man also makes him think of his younger brother. Such associations receive special emphasis as the film indicates that for Eddie, and within both U.S. Latino and Nicaraguan culture, family ties are generally very meaningful. The love and care he receives from his family is shown before Eddie dons his (decorated) uniform and departs for the manoeuver. Reminding him of his own family, the alleged enemy seems more familiar than other, and it becomes impossible for Eddie to conceptualize the Sandinistas as "mere gooks" in the way he was expected to frame his enemies in Vietnam. His notion of the "other" becomes completely confused when Marlena decides to go home to Nicaragua for good after her father has been killed in a Contra attack while protecting a school. The funeral takes place at El Porvenir, where Marlena integrates into the community and supports the cooperative's farm work.

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