On April 27 Tim was formally charged with criminal conspiracy, making false statements and using a false document. He was denied bail. According to Venezuelan law, the government would be granted 45 days to prepare its case before a hearing on June 11, when the judge would rule whether to move forward with a criminal trial. No one with any knowledge of Venezuelan criminal law expected Tim to have a chance of winning a court battle, so the upcoming hearing would almost certainly determine his fate. He was facing 30 years, the maximum sentence in Venezuela.
I began to feel an immediate rush of two intense and conflicting emotions: deep concern for a man I hardly knew but who had made an impression on me, and the charged excitement of inspiration. This was a story that spoke to me powerfully but in a way I didn’t yet understand. There was also an old-fashioned mystery that needed solving: How had Tim become the Osama bin Laden of Venezuela? Was Tim Tracy a spy?
Tim grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. The Tracy family made its fortune in auto parts following World War II, and Emmet, Tim’s father, prided himself on the fact that he babysat Mitt Romney while Mitt’s father, George, was on the campaign trail. When Tim arrived in Connecticut for his freshman year at Hotchkiss, an upper-crust boarding school, he was hyped as one of the best eighth-grade hockey players in the country, just as his older brother Tripp had once been. But this was a hormonal coed boarding school, and the pressure of playing in front of all those chatty little girls got inside his head. He’d get in a game and freeze, crippled by the fear that if he fucked up none of the girls would talk to him. He never came close to reaching his potential. Tripp ended up playing goalie in the NHL, while Tim wasn’t even the best player on his high school team.
He never played at Georgetown, but after graduating in 2001 he joined a semi-pro beer-league team in Sun Valley, Idaho. In the team’s final game of his first season, Tim skated onto the ice Slap Shot–style wearing nothing but his skates, pads, helmet and a jockstrap, with THANKS FANS scrawled across his ass. The crowd went nuts. At the bar that night, he was a star. Everyone told him he was crazy, and he loved it. He went home with a girl named Barbie, the star of the figure-skating team—more evidence that the world tended to cooperate when he played a character and that he was better at reading other people than he was at reading himself. He figured he’d roll with it. Later that year Tim moved to L.A. to try to make it as an actor. If he could make a living by hiding, maybe he’d never have to really look at himself in the mirror.
After six years of hustling, he turned 30 and had nothing to show for his efforts save a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him TV gigs. No matter how hard he worked, there was always this voice inside him saying, “This isn’t who you are. Try something else.” One night he was at a bar called the Green Door when out of nowhere an extremely hot girl sat down next to him.
“So,” she asked, “what do you do for work?”
He said it without even thinking: “I’m an active member of Delta Force.”
“Really? What’s that?”
“We go behind enemy lines and do terrorist shit,” he replied, straight-faced. “We’re very discreet. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m on leave and have to ship out tomorrow for Falluja.”
The reaction on her face was unlike anything he’d ever seen before—a combination of concern, awe, respect and desire. “Oh my God,” she said. “Thank you so much for your service to our country.” He knew what he was doing was deeply wrong, but it felt good to be in the Delta Force, even if for a moment.
She invited him back to her place. It was fantastic. When he woke up the next morning, he knew he should come clean, but he didn’t want to burst the bubble for either of them. She thinks I’m shipping off to Falluja, he said to himself. Let’s just keep it that way.
Two weeks later, he was back at the Green Door when she walked in. Eye contact, a moment of horror that eviscerated his character, and she was gone. It hit him hard. What he had done went deeper than dirtbaggery. It was inescapable proof that he had lost his way.
He quit acting and decided to learn the craft of filmmaking, to make a film that mattered. His fortunes began to change almost immediately. His friend and mentor Aengus James, also a former actor, gave him work as a producer on a documentary called American Harmony, as well as on Madhouse, a TV series about car racing for the History Channel. Tim quickly discovered that he had the natural skill set for production: effortless multitasking, obsessiveness and a preternatural ability to connect with just about anyone. What Tim needed was his own story to tell.
That opportunity first materialized in the dangerous curves of a sexy Latin girl on a dance floor. He was at the wedding of a Venezuelan college buddy when he found himself transfixed by a girl named Alejandra. The way she would put the back of her hand on the guy she was dancing with was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen.
When a Madonna song came on, Tim made his move. His Spanish was terrible, as was Alejandra’s English, but the chemistry was off the charts. They agreed to meet in Miami, where Alejandra began to tell Tim about Venezuela.
“I was on the street protesting every day,” she said. “My president is a dictator, and half of my friends were teargassed and beaten and sent to prison.”
She went on to explain that she was a member of the student opposition in Caracas that had been fighting the oppressive regime of President Hugo Chávez, who had enlisted murderers and thugs to enforce his will. She had a flair for the dramatic, and he bought all of it. He was moved by the imagery of these kids fighting for freedom, and he also had a girl to impress. Sensing an opportunity to play the hero, Tim made a fateful promise to Alejandra: He would make a film about the injustice in Venezuela and tell the world. He booked a ticket to leave in three months’ time and began tutoring himself on Venezuelan politics.
Chávez was no run-of-the-mill caudillo (Latin American military dictator); he was a supernova. Born in poverty to schoolteacher parents, he got his start in the Venezuelan military and began to fashion himself as the socialist reincarnation of Simón Bolívar, who had liberated Venezuela from Spanish rule in the early 19th century. Following a disastrous coup attempt in 1992, Chávez was imprisoned yet somehow managed to secure his release two years later, eventually seizing power in 1999 in what he called the Bolivarian Revolution. Aligning himself closely with his friend Fidel Castro, he emerged as a deceptively savvy anti-U.S. firebrand whose questionable mental stability and rumored cocaine dependency never got in the way of a camera. Every Sunday, he’d hold court on his nationally televised talk show Aló Presidente, which ran around six hours or whenever he decided to end it.
Tim was hooked. He soon found out through a friend that Alejandra was sleeping with another guy in Venezuela. It stung, but he could handle it. He was losing track of the girl. Now he had fallen in love with the country.
In 2010 Tim spent two weeks in Venezuela, filming rallies organized by students who didn’t quite live up to Alejandra’s billing. One lesson his friend Aengus had taught him early on was that a documentary filmmaker’s best friend was a bullshit detector, and most of these well-off kids weren’t passing the smell test. They were great at organizing rallies, but all it took was a glimpse of the chaotic shantytowns that dotted the outskirts of Caracas to see there was more to this story.
At a protest outside the Ecuadorian embassy, Tim met a local legend named Humberto Lopez who called himself Che and resembled the real Che Guevara to an astonishing degree. Che offered to take Tim for a walk through 23 de Enero, the most notorious barrio in Caracas and Chávez’s spiritual base. The moment Tim walked into the hillside shantytown built on the ruins of a public housing project, he felt the jolt of inspiration. This was a place where Chávez was considered a god—a point driven home by a massive Last Supper mural with Hugo sitting alongside Jesus—but whose inhabitants were living in squalor. How was that possible?
Tim realized that in order to make the film he wanted, he would have to go into the heart of darkness, into the barrios. That the disenfranchised could be so in awe of a leader as to make him a deity—there was the story. Tim knew he’d need a dramatic event to frame his narrative. It took two years to materialize. In September 2012, nine months after I’d met him, he was back in L.A. when he got a call from his friend Ricardo Korda in Caracas. The presidential election was a month away, and Chávez’s opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, was gathering steam. Chávez was politically vulnerable and suffering from a dangerous cancer, and everyone knew it. The Caracas streets buzzed with demonstrations and the occasional violent exchange between Chavistas and the opposition. Civil war was on the table.
“If you want to make this film, you need to come down here right now,” said Korda, who eventually became a co-producer on the project. “You’re never going to have another chance to do something like this. Everything is on the verge of falling apart.”
Tim grabbed his equipment and took the first flight out of L.A.