The Big Cigar is Too Flawed to Fully Recommend / Review on Apple TV+

The Big Cigar is Too Flawed to Fully Recommend / Review on Apple TV+

©Courtesy of Apple TV+


A movie production is always good cover for a caper, because they are supposed to be frantic and disorganized. It worked for CIA Officer Tony Mendez, when he smuggled Americans out of the Canadian embassy in Iran, as Ben Affleck dramatized in Argo. Leftwing producer Bert Schneider tried to do something similar a few years prior. However, instead of smuggling someone out of a totalitarian regime, he set out to sneak Black Panther Party Huey P. Newton into Cuba. They did weird things in the 1970s. Indeed, it was a crazy story, reflecting the drug and ideology-fueled excesses of its times, but there is little comedic irony in creator Jim Hecht’s six-part The Big Cigar, which premieres today on Apple TV+.

As the producer of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces Schneider helped establish the era of edgy, politically conscious drama now referred to as “New Hollywood.” He made a lot of money in the process. His latest project with producing partner Steve Blauner is the anti-war documentary, Hearts and Minds, which will eventually win an Academy Award. However, the editing has been difficult, in part because the starstruck Schneider is so distracted pursuing Newton, both as a potential film subject and a source of personal validation.


Consequently, Schneider is eager to help when Newton is accused of attempted murder. Much to Blauner’s shock, Schneider initially hides Newton in his partner’s home, which decidedly strains Blauner’s family life. Hecht and his co-writers take it as a given Newton was innocent, which could lead to “me too” objections to the series, considering a former Panther Party member posthumously accused him of multiple sexual assaults. Each episode asserts “The Big Cigar” fictionalizes events, so viewers should take everything with a huge grain of salt.

Big Cigar 2

©Courtesy of Apple TV+

Regardless, Schneider and the reluctant Blauner hatch a plan secure Newton’s passage to Cuba. Rightly assuming the FBI tapped their phones, they refer to the operation as if it were a film production, fittingly titled The Big Cigar. Not wanting to waste a good scenario, Schneider starts talking about turning their real-life illegal exploits into an actual movie. Soon, his flakiness and opportunism start annoying both Blauner and Newton.

There is a lot of zeitgeisty mayhem that could have been prime fodder for satire in the hands of different writers and directors (including Don Cheadle, who helmed the first two episodes). Unfortunately, it lacks the critical distance to appreciate the irony and absurdity of the events which unfold. For instance, it ignores the fate of Eldridge Cleaver, Newton’s more militant rival within the Black Panther Party, who eventually evolved into a conservative Republican, repudiating the New Left.


On the other hand, The Big Cigar is a terrific period production. The art and design teams vividly recreate the glitz and sleaze of Hollywood as well as the grit of Oakland in time-capsule-worthy detail. In some ways, it compares to Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but the vibe is far less dreamy.

Instead, there is a good deal of funkiness. One of the series’ greatest merits is the groovy soundtrack composed by Robert Glasper, a soul and hip hop-influenced jazz musician. His themes always set the right mood and accurately channel the tenor of the times.

Big Cigar©Courtesy of Apple TV+

Frankly, the ensemble cast does a remarkable job selling the didactic dialogue written for them. Andre Holland burns with intensity as Newton, but his character arc starts at martyr and ends at secular saint. Alessandro Nivola is surprisingly sad as Schneider, whose neurotic self-loathing is acutely human. Initially, P.J. Byrne largely supplies comic relief as the high-strung Blauner, but he nicely portrays the producer’s awakening of conscience as the situation grows more violent.

Arguably, the most thoughtful and ultimately poignant performance comes from Noah Emmerich, as Schneider’s more temperamentally conservative big brother, Stanley. Their sibling relationship is surprisingly touching. However, there are a lot of stock characters populating The Big Cigar, including FBI agents and other Black Panthers, who largely emulate the figures you might see in archival news reports, on a surface level.

Frankly, Hecht and company clearly presuppose who the market for The Big Cigar will be—and it is not for general audiences. That insular perspective is quite limiting. Fans of New Hollywood will be amused at times, but anyone intrigued by the general premise should revisit or catch-up with “Argo” instead. Despite a great soundtrack, The Big Cigar is too flawed to fully recommend when it starts streaming today (5/17) on Apple TV+

Grade: C

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Here’s the trailer of the series.

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