Cuba was main theatre of “splendid little war” with Spain that established United States as new great power and paved the way for American hegemony over the rest of the world in 20th Century. Ironically, it was also setting of Cuban Revolution - an event that undermined and continues to undermine that very hegemony to this day. This is the reason why Hollywood was usually hesitant to depict that chapter of history in its films despite potentials given by exotic setting, period nostalgia, action and romance. The most spectacular and predictably failed attempt was Havana, 1990 film directed by Sydney Pollack.
The plot is set in late 1958 and the protagonist is Jack Weil (played by Robert Redford), professional gambler who travels from USA to Havana. Cuban capital city at the time is known for its exotic night life that attracts many wealthy tourists, some of whom like the gamble in luxurious casinos owned by Mafia. One of them is run by Weil’s old friend Jack Volpi (played by Alan Arkin) and Weil hopes that he would help him set a lucrative high stakes poker game. In the meantime, Weil can’t fail to notice that Cuba is becoming politically unstable due to pro-American regime of Fulgencio Batista having to resort to increasingly violent and oppressive means in order to fight rebel guerilla army of Fidel Castro, which is gaining huge support among large sections of impoverished population. One of supporters of revolution is Bobby Duran (played by Lena Olin), beautiful woman who has met on the boat trip to Havana and who even talked him into helping smuggle surplus US Army radios to the rebels. After he finally arrives to Havana, Weil tries to start romantic relationship with Bobby only to learn that she is married to Arturo Duran (played by Raul Julia in uncredited role), physician from aristocratic family who joined the cause of rebels. Arturo believes that his background would protect him from SIM, Batista’s dreaded secret police led by Colonel Menocal (played by Tomas Milian), Weil’s old acquaintance. That proves to be wrong after Bobby is arrested and tortured, while Arturo gets apparently killed during escape attempt. Weil uses all of his money, charm and gambling skills and succeeds in winning her freedom, but situation in the city, with slow but steady approach of rebel forces, becomes increasingly chaotic and Weil must make arrangements to quickly depart, preferably with Bobby.
Sydney Pollack, director and co-producer, was trying to make Havana for a long time. The end of Cold War, when it seemed very likely that Castro’s Communist regime would soon join decomposing Soviet Union and East Bloc in the dustbin of history, made the subject matter less problematic from political perspective and allowed scriptwriters Judith Rascoe and David Rayfiel approach it from “safe” historical distance. Pollack, few years after his “Oscar” triumph with Out of Africa could also have afforded large budget for another epic period melodrama. Those resources were well-spent, especially in scenes that reconstruct pre-Revolution Havana in all of its glory and infamy, with great deal of care for costumes, cars and other props from the period, accompanied by impressive number of old pop songs and likeable musical score by Dave Grusin. Pollack couldn’t have made film in Havana itself, so he had to actually build major and very expensive set in Dominican Republic and hire thousands of extras.
Those efforts, however, were insufficient to deal with the main problem of Havana - unoriginal and messy script. Unlike Coppola, who had effectively used Cuban Revolution as relatively brief episode in Godfather Part II decade an half earlier, Pollack had to deal with those tumultuous events in the entire film. His scriptwriters chose not to portray complexities of deeply socially divided island in geopolitically divided world and instead opted for simple and easily recognisable template of Casablanca. In doing so, they made the film look unoriginal and, at the same time, bad in comparison with Michael Curtiz’s classic. To make things even worse, Richard Lester 1979 British film Cuba used the same template. Both films were underwhelming, with Cuba looking more down-to-earth while Havana looking more polished and “larger-than-life” like proper Hollywood epic should.
The cast is more than solid. Robert Redford, Pollack’s old associate, looks quite comfortable with his advanced age that allowed him to keep most of his good looks and allow him to still function as romantic lead. Redford is, on the other hand, somewhat at odds with script that sometimes forces him to switch between cynical materialist and love-motivated idealist who wants to do the right thing. Episode in which his character indulges in threesome with two female American tourists (played by Betsy Brantley and Lise Cutter) looks too bizarre and apparently added to film only to try get extra publicity with some sort of controversy. Lena Olin, on the other hand, works hard and has something of a chemistry with Redford, which is unsurprising in light that both of them had passionate affair in real life. Good character actors like Alan Arkin, Raul Julia and veteran Cuban actor Tomas Milian are good, although some of their roles are underwritten and undeveloped. Pollack at times indulges in too much showing of budget at his disposal, making running time of Havana bloated with almost two and half hour. In the end, Havana failed at the box office and underwhelmed the critics. Those who watch this film today could enjoy it, but only with extra patience and limited expectations.
RATING: 5/10 (++)
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