'Crazy Che' ('El Crazy Che'): Film Review

CRAZY CHE - H 2015
Courtesy of Metiche Films
Breathless espionage entertainment.

An Argentinian doc about an American double agent in the '80s and '90s.

Anyone who’s ever suspected that the spying game is just that  an elaborate way for certain kinds of driven people to keep themselves entertained  will find their suspicions confirmed by Crazy Che,  a documentary that’s just as fast and frenzied as its distinctive hero. At giddying speed the film strips back the life and times of Bill Gaede, an American who during the '80s and '90s dealt in industrial espionage, first for Cuba and the Soviet Union, and then for the U.S. 

Digital surveillance may mean that the days of the good old raincoat-wearing, brazen, fast-thinking spy, of which Gaede is definitely one, are numbered, which makes Crazy Che, with its '80s cassette tapes and handicams, a bit of a nostalgic homage too. Festivals should warm to a well-put-together package with no pretensions other than to properly tell a good yarn.

The original intention of directors Iacouzzi and Chehebar — whose radically different last film was about a plague of Patagonian beavers  was to shoot a doc about Argentinean scientists working abroad. But when they came across the unlikely figure of Gaede — now a physics professor in Germany working on his theory of the universe  they understandably changed their minds.

In his 20s, Gaede became seduced by the high ideals of communism and Castro, and decided to supply them with technical information about integrated circuitry produced at the large Silicon Valley company where he worked. Rarely has the manufacture of microchips been filmed as excitingly as it is here.

He was invited to Cuba to meet Castro, but that never happened  instead, the poverty he saw in Havana disillusioned him with communism. Falling in with the likes of Jose ‘Pepe’ Cohen and Roland Sarraf Trujillo (recently released from jail following the Cuban thaw and referenced by President Obama himself in one of the film’s final sequences) Gaede did an about-turn and started supplying classified Cuban info to the FBI with the aim of overthrowing his former hero Castro. Gaede doesn’t seem to care much who falls, but it all ended for him with 33 months in jail.

These are the bare bones of what is undeniably an exciting story, but the film’s pleasures are in its details. Gaede himself is an eloquent interviewee. He combines the disheveled professor with the slick operator, replete with a high-speed mind as he produces these highly polished stories in a way calculated to make him come across as attractively devil-may-care, a lovable rogue. He repeatedly calls himself “crazy,” and the film’s title refers to the nickname he was given in jail. His brother insists that for Gaede it was indeed all a game, and you have the impression that he’s a man blessed with a surfeit of intelligence who chose to burn off the excess in exciting ways. But what the film doesn’t deliver is much self-reflection: what you get is what Gaede does, and no more.

The material is probably familiar to those interested in issues of espionage, and indeed Bill Gaede can be found on Wikipedia. But no story can tell itself, and Iacouzzi and Chehebar leave no stone unturned in exploiting the material to the dramatic max. Archive footage, documentation, and a dozen interviewees (one of whom, Gaede’s long-suffering wife, prefers to have her face obscured) are cleverly deployed by use of rapid-fire editing, but the icing is the video footage which Gaede himself took when, after feeling betrayed by the FBI, he understandably decided to secretly record on video and audio his every interaction with them. He invented, for example, something called an “oven cam”, a device no more sophisticated than it sounds, for just this purpose: there are also specially designed spy coats and folders, for lovers of such spy gadgetry. Simple animated images, sometimes cleverly synchronized to recorded phone conversations, eye-catchingly  round out both the visuals and the story.

Production company: Metiche Films
Directors, screenwriters, editors: Nicolas Iacouzzi, Pablo Chehebar
Executive producers: Rocio Furmento, Marcos Barboza
Director of photography: Alan Badan
Production designer: Lucia Carnicero
Costume designer: Moises Tobal, Carolina Segatta
Composer: Tomas Leonhardt
Sales: Metiche Films

No rating, 83 minutes