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For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story opens in 1991 with Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval (Andy Garcia) entering an American embassy in London and asking for political asylum in hopes of defecting. David Paymer plays an unidentified State Department man who interviews Sandoval to determine if the United States will accept Sandoval’s request. From this moment on, we learn about Sandoval’s life and how he came to this crucial (and very dangerous) juncture in his life by way of flashbacks, interspersed with Paymer’s questioning.
For Love or Country is a true biopic about the famous Cuban trumpeter and explores his life as an adult, when he becomes increasingly dissatisfied with Fidel Castro’s constraints on his music and the politics of “The Revolution” that declares Sandoval’s real musical love, American jazz, illegal. The movie, an HBO original picture, doesn’t concern itself with showing every nuance of Cuba’s politics. Instead, the movie is about Sandoval’s struggles to remain true to his country, which he loves with a passion, while balancing it with his love for music, which he can’t give up despite countless roadblocks.
The movie’s main focus, Sandoval’s struggles to play his music, is sidetracked by his courting of Marianela, a dedicated Communist party member who works for the State and believes the Party’s message without hesitation. The two has a rocky romance and even rockier marriage as their two beliefs collide over and over, both too headstrong to give in.
For Love or Country makes very strong statements about democracy and the need for it, and the results of a democracy turned upside down. At its very core, For Love or Country is about Garcia and his fellow Cubans’ love for their country, which they see going downhill ever since that hopeful day when Fidel Castro, revolutionary and savior, rode into the street to assume power. Between the political criticisms, the movie wraps itself around true historical events, the appearance of real historical figures like American jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, and other pivotal periods in Cuban history, including the mass escape from Cuba in 1981 by Cuban boat people. All of this serves as a history lesson for those, like myself, not intimately acquainted with the Cuban experience.
For an HBO movie, the budget for For Love or Country couldn’t have been all that great, and yet Cuba comes alive. Obviously the filmmakers couldn’t shoot in the actual island nation and that another locale substituted for the real Cuba. Still, the world that is presented to us is lush with culture, history, and a very unique people who despite having all their dreams of freedom and democracy trampled on by one dictator replacing another, continues to live life as best they can. The movie succeeds because it isn’t an American flag waving movie, but is instead very pro-Cuba. It’s just anti-Castro.
Acting in For Love or Country is superb all around. As Sandoval, Garcia brings his heart and soul to the proceedings, and his tearful pleadings to Paymer’s State Department interviewee is truly stirring. It’s very obvious this is a dream movie for Garcia, and background information bears out the fact that he has been trying to make the movie for a while now. Garcia is a known musician, and his portrayal of Sandoval, especially during the club scenes where he plays the trumpet, comes alive and believable. You never once think that Garcia is lip trumpeting (if there’s such a word), although he might have been. The authenticity is there.
As Marianela, Sandoval’s idealistic communist wife, Mia Maestro is fiery and determined to hold onto her ideals, but her transformation from blind idealist to eyes-open pragmatist happens too suddenly and iss not all that believable. What is believable and very effectively portrayed onscreen is Sandoval’s sudden paranoia that Marianela might be a Party plant, sent to keep him in line and spy on him for the State. Even when the two are married, the suspicion about Marianela continues.
Cuban singer Gloria Estefan co-stars as Emilia, a fellow party member co-worker of Marianela. Estefan does a good job, and it’s not much of a stretch to guess that she did the film out of a belief in it, and not out of any desire to get into the acting game. As such, her acting is only acceptable. As Gillespie, Charles Dutton is almost unrecognizable, and his scenes bring much-needed humor to the movie’s very politically charged climate. For a movie about Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the big man himself never shows up onscreen as a character, but is only seen in TV recordings.
There’s great care in the reconstruction of Cuba and an intense passion for the country and its culture in every scene of For Love or Country. Even when Sandoval is at the American embassy defending his politics and actions while in Cuba to the American interviewer, the movie never takes cheap shots at Cuba. Instead, it criticizes Fidel’s Cuba and the blind devotion to “The Revolution” — but never criticizes the ideals that brought Castro to power in the first place. That is, the desire for democracy.
Joseph Sargent (director) / Timothy J. Sexton (screenplay)
CAST: Andy Garcia …. Arturo Sandoval
MÃa Maestro …. Marianela
Gloria Estefan …. Emilia
David Paymer …. Embassy Interviewer
Charles Dutton …. Dizzy Gillespie