While Havana is perhaps a bit over-reaching at times, stretching out what is really a character study to epic lengths, it does have a lot going for it. The film presents an inventive and engaging story, some enchanting cinematography, a cool soundtrack, and fine performances throughout. It also provides a plot and central character that poker players may find particularly interesting. Redford plays Jack Weil, a professional player who visits Havana primarily for the high-stakes games on offer, but who ultimately finds himself pulled away from the tables by revolution and romance.
The film also gives us something to think about with regards to the way poker sometimes stands as a kind of an emblem for America. Jack is a good player, his ability making him stand out from his opponents as much as does his blonde-haired, blue-eyed appearance. But several of the skills that make Jack a winning poker player -- his self-reliance, his confidence, his independent or even selfish approach to life -- could also be called “American” traits, too. And it is this idea of himself as free and at liberty to pursue whatever calling he chooses that gets challenged by the urgent political crisis in which he finds himself in Havana.
The entire story takes place during the last week of 1958, the final days of the six-year-long revolt that finally forced Fulgencio Batista out of Cuba on January 1, 1959 to be replaced by Castro's regime. It begins on Christmas Eve on a boat going from Miami to Havana, where we meet suave Jack agreeing to help a pretty female passenger get her car off the boat and through inspections upon arrival.
Soon thereafter Jack heads to the Lido, a hotel-casino managed by a friend Joe Volpi (Alan Arkin). Jack tries to persuade Joe to help him organize a group of high rollers for a high-stakes game, but Joe suggests uncertainty about the revolution has made it more difficult to get such a group together. Jack argues to the contrary, suggesting there’s “nothing like the sound of a gunfire to stimulate action,” but Joe isn’t cooperating.
Finally Joe shows up, a little peeved that Jack has chosen to play elsewhere, and agrees to get a game going for him at the Lido. Jack is excited, and talks to Joe about his desire to make that one huge, high-stakes score against “guys who don’t even think how much they’re playing for.”
“This is the time for me, right now,” Jack tells Joe. “And this is the city.”
The line recalls for us how Havana is just one of many places Jack has played poker, a place that if not for the events that are about to unfold would have remained just another stop on his personal world poker tour.
As it happens, Jack reunites with the woman he helped on the boat, Roberta Duran (Lena Olin). It turns out she’s married to a leading figure in the revolt, Arturo Duran (Raúl Juliá). In fact, as Jack already partially understands from having inspected Roberta’s car, he’s helped smuggle some American radios for the revolutionaries to use.
He eventually meets Arturo who invites Jack to dinner with him and his wife. There Arturo tries to enlist Jack’s help in the cause, but Jack is only interested in poker. In fact, Jack can’t even take seriously the idea that the revolution is going to amount to anything, he’s so focused on enjoying -- and profiting from -- the decadent night life available to him in Havana.
Arturo tries to suggest that Jack’s poker-playing skills could be useful to the revolutionaries’ strategic planning, but Jack waves off the suggestion.
“Oh, no,” pleads Jack. “I don’t play cards for that. That’s politics.”
“Perhaps it isn’t innocence at all,” interjects Roberta somewhat hesitantly. “Perhaps Mr. Weil really doesn’t give a damn.”
Weil defends himself by saying that he’s played poker with politicians before, and in fact likes to because they tend to be easily beatable opponents. In fact, says Jack, the poker table is “the only place an ordinary man can beat a politician.”
Arturo asks Jack why politicians are easy to beat, and Jack’s reply reminds us of how he played the earlier session. “Sometimes in poker it’s smarter to lose with a winning hand so you can win later with a losing hand,” Jack explains. “And politicians never can quite believe that. ’Cause they want the power now.”
In a way, Jack is suggesting he believes he’s chosen a pursuit that is somehow nobler than politics -- or at least one in which he doesn’t have to concern himself with politics. In fact, later on he’ll say “I feel more honest playing cards than trying to make believe the mountains are mine.”
Thus satisfied with knowing how to beat politicians at his preferred game, Jack has carved himself out a life in which he believes he does not have to play other “games” in which the goals aren’t as clear or attractive to him.
As has already been suggested, Jack does get further involved in the revolution, thanks in part to his attraction to Roberta. The game at Lido’s becomes a part of the plot, too, when one of Batista’s lieutenants and the head of the secret police also participate. Jack wins money, information, and some additional leverage in the game to enable him to help the revolutionaries and Roberta in particular.
I’ll leave the remainder of the complicated (though not too hard to follow) plot for those wishing to see the film. Ultimately the movie comes to resemble in many ways Casablanca, another film in which a somewhat unwilling American (Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart) finds himself thrust into the middle of a political conflict thanks largely to his attraction to a woman (Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa).
And like in Casablanca, even though our hero is primarily motivated by a woman to act, surrounding circumstances make the possibility of his being with that woman unlikely if not impossible.
We see Jack repeatedly asking himself and others “What do I want with a revolutionary?” and “You think I care about any of this stuff?” as he grapples with the idea that there is more to the world than his own personal pursuit of happiness. Roberta in particular challenges him repeatedly, accusing him of seeing Havana only as “a place for a card game” rather than a city in which lives are being affected in profound ways.
“I try to keep out of the way of stuff I don’t understand,” says Jack to Roberta. “All this is like living your life in the newspapers.... But they make too much out of it. Most of the time nothing is going on. Just everyday stuff.”
Very existentialist. Very American, too, one might argue. And a lot like what we hear at the poker tables, a place where the outside world often gets conveniently shut out as we await the deal of another hand or the announcement of another bet.
Thanks to Bruce McCullough for having first suggested to me that I take a look at Havana and its use of poker. For further reading, see my interview with McCullough for Betfair Poker, “Poker in the Classroom: Teaching Probability and Decision-Making,” in which we discuss a poker-themed college course he has taught as well as the way Havana subtly suggests Jack’s character to be especially gifted when it comes to understanding odds and probabilities.