My colleague Joe Lima, has written an extensive and intelligent deconstruction of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che.” There’s not a word there anyone interested in truth or human rights could argue with. For Joe, and for many, Soderbergh’s film does not transcend the insidious politics behind it.
This wasn’t the case for me.
Anyone who’s worked at any level of the entertainment industry understands that one of the great injustices of our world is that talent is not tied to virtue. Honorable people make terrible films, the dishonorable make timeless classics. If the world were just, John Wayne’s plea to stand by our allies in Vietnam would be remembered as a classic and Jane Fonda setting back for decades a clean, cheap energy source would’ve turned out laughably bad.
No fan of Soderbergh’s, and well aware of who the real Ernesto “Che” Guevera was, the film still completely won me over. As an artist, Soderbergh did his job and told his story in a way that favored the experience of a guerrilla revolution over the politics behind it. Were I ever to find the time to put together a top ten list of my favorite films of 2008, “Che” would rank in the top five.
So, at the risk of having my cherished and hard-earned Right Wing Extremist credentials put into question … my review sits below the jump:
Steven Soderbergh’s 257-minute, cinematic hagiography to Ernesto “Che” Guevera is a lie. A lie of omission and commission. A lie so afraid of its own shadow you’ll learn more about Castro’s Monster from his now iconic t-shirt image than from the film (on the shirts you can at least can see the wicked in his eyes). But this lie is also a striking cinematic achievement that mesmerizes for most of its challenging run time as it takes you into the heart of two very different kinds of guerrilla revolutions.
Part one, The Argentine, opens its story in Mexico. The year is 1956 and Cuban-exile, Fidel Castro (an amazing Demián Bichir), is recruiting to topple Fulgencio Batista, an America-friendly dictator deeply unpopular with the Cuban peasant population. Ernesto Guevera (Benicio Del Toro) is not Cuban, but he is a charismatic true believer, and soon this married doctor is on a boat loaded with other exiles headed for Cuba.
The revolution occurs almost exclusively under the cover of Cuba’s thick jungle terrain allowing the guerrillas to hide out between the planning and executing of hit-and-run operations that serve the dual purpose of demoralizing Batista’s Army and radicalizing those in the population ready to stand with anyone serious about deposing the dictator. If Castro’s insurgency is to succeed, the people must be on his side, and it’s here where Che’s medical training proves invaluable.
Medical training is just one of Che’s talents, though. A natural leader and savvy diplomat in the important arena of hearts and minds, Castro eventually promotes him from camp doctor to Comandante in charge of a full column. In less than two years from that fateful meeting in Mexico, Castro and his army roll successfully into Havana.
Inter-cut throughout this first chapter is a flash-forward filmed in black and white of Che’s post-revolution visit to New York City in 1964 and subsequent speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Between the speech and an interview with a reporter played by Julia Ormond, we’re subjected treated to Che’s political and military philosophy contextualized with what’s portrayed ten years earlier in Cuba. The genius of the film is that you need not sympathize nor agree with what you’re watching in order to be absorbed by it. Through camera placement and a stubborn refusal to give in to scope, Soderbergh makes you a fly on the wall and firsthand witness as the many, many small setbacks and victories play out that are the real work of revolutions. Each scene is another cog in the historical wheel as it turns towards what you already know is a successful outcome. Some of the cogs are gunfights and terrorist attacks, but most are small political meetings between Che and any willing party, held in mud huts or thick brush as they swat away bugs. Che’s brilliance, at least as portrayed in the film, was his acute ability to turn every move, decision, attack, and encounter into its own political animal always with the big picture in mind.
This is ground-level, grass-roots history, not even so much where the blood spills, but where the sweat pours and a movement is painstakingly built one recruit at a time. Movies are always eager to portray Big History, but true or not, Soderbergh captured the turning of the smaller gears which make up the Big History, and watching those gears meticulously find a place in a war of political attrition has never been captured in this way on film before.
Part two, Guerilla, opens its story in 1965. Castro is firmly in charge of Cuba and Guevera is eager to recreate the Cuban revolution in South America, starting with Bolivia. Using a disguise and fake name, Guevera enters the country and quickly makes his way deep into the Bolivian jungle under the mistaken assumption that what worked before will again.
Having learned from the fall of Batista, Bolivia’s President, Rene Barrientos (the always excellent Joaquim de Almeida) is quick to request the help of the United States and wastes no time in dispatching his army to hunt down insurgents. Once the American CIA informs him that Guevera may be leading them, Barrientos wisely redoubles his efforts.
The contrast between Cuba and Bolivia is what makes the second part so interesting. Everything that went right in Cuba thankfully went wrong in Bolivia. Unlike Fidel Castro, Che doesn’t have the gravity or diplomatic chops to bring disparate groups of revolutionaries together and when the Bolivian Communist Party refuses promised help, the writing is on the wall. Ultimately, however, this revolution is doomed by those small but important cogs. Internal squabbles among the men, peasants lacking the bravado of those in Cuba, and the asthma that’s troubled Guevera since the beginning, all contribute to Che and his small band of guerrillas hunted, run to ground, captured and eventually executed.
Che is not a film for everyone, even those who might sympathize with its politics. Even though I managed to get swept up, there are more than a few slow spots and the casting of Matt Damon for a one scene cameo might qualify as spell-breaker of the year, though Lou Diamond Phillips as the head of the Bolivian Communist Party runs a close second. But overall, if you can give yourself over to it, Che is a one of a kind experience, though that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Less than one minute of the four-plus hours gives us a glimpse into the true nature of Castro’s Monster. In his United Nations speech Che is adamant that the executions will continue but because Soderbergh offers no context to the very real horrors that were playing out in Cuba, the statement sounds more like bravado than the promise it really was. Other than an odd moment near the end of Guerilla when a weary, asthma-plagued Che stabs a stubborn horse to death, we get 256 minutes of Saint Guevera, patiently caring for the sick, sharing his food, going without, and fighting for the common man.
It’s a testament to Del Toro’s presence as an actor that he’s able to hold the screen over four hours playing a fairly one-dimensional character, but he’s really not the star of the film, the process of fomenting revolution is. As is Soderbergh’s audacity. The man’s a liar and a filmmaker whose work I haven’t much admired, ironically, until now.