A professional card player plans to strike it rich at the gaming tables as the Communists rise and the big money rushes to the exits in Havana, Cuba, 1959. He doesn’t count on love with a beautiful woman working with the rebels and an affair that will change everything.
Oscar Nominated: best music, original score
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Sydney Pollack passed away in 2008 and if you blinked you missed it. It was not front page news. He’d left directing largely for producing and acting – he was an impeccable actor within a limited range. Two decades on -- an eternity in Hollywood -- it was easy to forget the handful of films that placed him among the very top directors of the seventies and eighties. Among them: ‘Tootsie’ and ‘Out Of Africa’ -- for which he won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.
Somewhere Pollack lost his touch for mega-success – or was it that the stories he wanted to tell and the stories people wanted to hear diverged? We can place that vague somewhere around about ‘Havana’. Jack Weil (Redford) is looking for the big score. He smells big-money poker – the shaky Batista regime is in its last throes, but it’s all good: change flushes out the 'blue chips' and anything can happen. Anything does happen when Jack meets Roberta -- Bobbi (Lena Olin) on the ferry from Florida to Cuba. She’s a knock-out with a fancy car and a little too much under the hood -- she’s smuggling radios to the rebels in Cuba. She pays him $800. to drive her car off the boat.
Jack meets her later at the ‘Ledo’ for the pay-off. He makes a pass at her. He’s drunk and down – the poker game that his pal Volpey (Alan Arkin) had promised him has evaporated. The chemistry between Olin and Redford is lustrous. They turn the slightest scene into gold. They walk out onto a Havana street and you are there -- the entire street was created for the film and it is blissfully alive. She informs him she is married and they go their separate ways : she into the intrigue of revolutionary Cuba and he into high stakes poker -- but he can’t forget her.
Jack keeps Bobbi at his apartment for a day. She tells him her story and he makes her lunch and calms her with talk and offers of passage to Florida. He’s a complete gentleman, something new for him. She naps and he sleeps in an adjoining room. When he wakes she’s gone and Menocal and his henchman are pounding the door.
But Jack is on a roll: Menocal likes him and lets him off the hook; Volpey has a bigger game set up. But Jack is vexed: he forsakes the game and drives his Cadillac into the hills to search for her; throws away a fortune to discover the war and its atrocities; to find her working with the rebels; to find truth, love above all. He spirits her back to the city and they become lovers; but a major reversal changes everything.
Lena Olin convinced me in 1990 that she was the next great star. She was already a star in Europe, had I known. American Cinema didn't know quite what to do with her. Redford is formidable, as ever: a wonderful, classic technician. He carves space and emotion with his eye and voice and delivers it to you dispassionately like a butcher -- this works nine times out of ten. Yet this film, I’ve long felt, is that tenth time – the tenth time you let it all out and splatter the walls! The tenth time you ‘be John Malkovich’ if only for a second!
‘Havana’ cooks and then it cools for a long walk. Jack walks with his friend Joe Volpey through the midnight streets of Havana. The sets are exquisite; he visits an old mentor who’s bedding twin sisters at the Nacional. You look at the man and you see Jack in twenty years – this is where he will go without love. And its all very meaningful; and a lovely change of pace; but it seems luxuriant when you count the momentum lost with these two scenes.
The story flirts with agitprop -- you shiver: don't go there. It’s also a ‘Brash America Finds its Soul’ tale; but it lagged at the box-office. And so the question rises: did America really want to find its Soul? Yes! – as it turns out -- but not in ‘Havana’! In the Iowa cornfields of ‘Field Of Dreams’, 1989; in the wild prairies of ‘Dances With Wolves’, 1990. Kevin Costner was the new King of Hollywood – and he put a softer spin on the old American Machismo, without running it through the gutters of old Havana.
‘Havana’ finds its footing finally – whenever Redford and Olin share a scene. It’s a beautiful romance -- the production values, the star power, the direction, all push the film despite its self-indulgence into the classic film column. Break out the Mojitos and Daquiris for this slow stroll through the streets of Old Havana.