Che(1/16/2009)

There are few figures in history as controversial as Ernesto “Che” Guevara.  To many people his face is the representation of revolution and radical left wing reform, others see him as nothing more than a communist who helped build a regime that is under American embargo to this day.  Alberto Korda’s photo of the revolutionary has been emblazed on millions of T-shirts, I don’t think the people wearing these shirts are interested in celebrating communism anymore than someone wearing a Thomas Jafferson shirt is celebrating slavery; rather they are celebrating Guevara as a well intentioned visionary.  I’ve never owned one of these shirts, nor have I seen anyone wearing one since the Clinton administration, but I can respect the sentiment.   I’m not sure if Steven Soderbergh has ever owned one of these shirts, but I do know that Soderbergh’s new film about the Argentine revolutionary makes for compelling drama.

When I first heard about this project it was being sold as a pair of separate films called The Argentine and Guerrilla.  This changed when it was delivered to the Cannes film festival as one long film simply titled Che.  After it received mixed festival reviews, the film has been on a distribution roller coaster; the studio that finally picked it up, IFC films, still doesn’t seem dedicated to the idea of releasing it as either one film or two and they still aren’t sure whether they want to call the parts by their original names or as simply Part 1 and Part 2.  Luckily, they had enough confidence in the project to release the film in my market in the deluxe roadshow presentation, and this is the format I saw it in.

The film ran four hours and twenty three minutes and featured a fifteen minute intermission as well as an overture and an entr’acte.  The ticket cost me fifteen dollars, but that’s exactly what this theater would normally charge for two films, so I guess that’s fair enough.  The film even came with a full color program, which is a nice bonus but has little in it except for the movie’s credits (which, in the roadshow tradition, are omitted from the film’s print).  An essay or two would have gone a long way to increase the value of this souvenir, but it was essentially free so I can’t complain.

The two movie in one concept has been experimented with recently by filmmakers like Quentin Tarentino and Clint Eastwood to various degrees of success.  Tarentino’s Kill Bill series, despite its chronological jumping, was undoubtedly one story split into two (the fact that one had more action than the other was incidental).  On the other end of the spectrum, the Iwo Jima films that Clint Eastwood released in 2006 were entirely separate films linked only by setting and mood.  The Che films lay somewhere between the two.  Though they’re being released as one film, I think they would both hold up as standalone films.  Though the Che character in the second act is certainly the same character seen in the first act, the two films take place in fairly disconnected periods in his life.

The first part focuses almost entirely on the Cuban revolution from beginning to end.  There are maybe five minutes of screen time dedicated to pre-invasion material.  The film also flashes forward to Guevara’s 1964 diplomatic trip to New York, but this ultimately acts less as a part of the story than as a medium to listen to his philosophies and better understand his motivations.  The second part the film is about Guevara’s guerrilla war in Bolivia and is even more strictly focused.  The fact that each film maintains such laser-sighted focus on its respective war gives the film a certain purity, but can also be one of it’s a double edged sword.  We only see Guevara when he’s at war, never at peace.  The film skips over the five year period between the two wars, including his marriage to Aleida March which is briefly mentioned only in dialogue (March is a seen as a member of his army in part one).  Because we see almost nothing of Guevara’s personal life, or doing much of anything other than Guerrilla warfare, he’s not a particularly relatable character and the viewer is oddly distanced from him.  I might go so far as to say this is a pair of war films first and a biopic second, especially during part one.

Part of why Guevara seems like such a distant character throughout the film is that Soderbergh maintains an incredible objectivity throughout the film.  He has an almost fly on the wall approach to the events of the revolution and the viewer is left to judge Guevara by his own actions and words.  Soderbergh almost never editorializes and hardly a line is spent on exposition.  Of course the most controversial period in Guevara’s life, his running of the Cabaña Fortress, is completely skipped over and Soderbergh does not get too deep into the implications of Guevara’s ideology.  But all this isn’t really the point; I don’t think Soderbergh cares if Cuba or Boliva are turned into “communist paradises.”  What’s important is that Guevara himself deeply believes in his own cause and will sacrifice himself to see it through.  If nothing else, he’s a man of good intentions, he never sought to profit from his actions and he never seems interested in gaining power.  He’s a man who genuinely believes that what he’s doing is right for the people of Latin America, though he was probably naïve to trust the likes of Fidel Castro. 

The first part appears to have used the brunt of the film’s budget, and it features significantly more combat sequences.  There are a number of skirmishes seen, but this isn’t Saving Private Ryan.  The fighting is small scale and guerrilla-style, very reminiscent of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Soderbergh does not dwell on action sequences; in fact Guevara spends significantly more time recruiting peasants and training soldiers than he does throwing around Molotov cocktails.  It all leads up to the battle of Santa Clara, which is about twenty well crafted minutes of urban combat.  While this is hardly mainstream filmmaking, it is exciting and relatively accessible.

The second part is more personal, smaller in scale, slower, and likely to be more divisive.  During this half the film’s aspect ratio narrows down from 2.35:1 to 1.85:1, and this makes sense given the significantly altered tones of the first two halve.  While Part One was a triumphant victory, part two is about Guevara’s tragic downfall in the jungles of Bolivia.  As such the second part is, appropriately, sort of a downer and the tone does nothing to alleviate the tragedy.   There’s very little action in this second part, and while part one was hardly a laugh riot it was a lot more entertaining about this.  I’m not sure if this movie really benefits from the roadshow presentation in that the film gets slower and less entertaining after around three and a half hours of sitting in a movie theater.  But the movie does rebound somewhere around the sixth act (second film, third act), there’s a great battle in the jungle and the final moments of Guevara’s life are really well handled.  This half actually reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s recent output in that you’re slowly watching someone going toward an inevitable outcome, yet you stick with him in sickness and in health.

One lens through which this second half can be viewed is an allegorical one; because, oddly, Guevara acts a lot more like George W. Bush than Barack Obama.  At one point in Part One, Guevara reads off a Tolstoy quote which establishes that victory in battle is largely related to the motivation of the forces.  In Cuba he was able to motivate the people in a big way; they were interested in and receptive to communism.  That was the right place to spread his ideology, Boliva wasn’t.  Guevara assumes that the Bolivian people will accept any ideology for the simple fact that they are oppressed, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case, they mostly just see him as a dangerous troublemaker.  Bush made the same mistake when he assumed that the Iraqi people would view Americans as liberators and accept democracy simply because Saddam Hussein was a dictator.  I don’t want to oversell this angle, it probably wasn’t intentional and  it’s not a perfect allegory (the CIA were probably just as big a factor in his defeat), but this is there for people like me to see.

One complaint I could have is that, while Guevara himself is fairly distant from the viewer, everyone else is completely unimportant.  Historical figures certainly show up, they’re almost named one by one in an early scene; they’re all basically gears in Guevara’s army.  Even Fidel Castro almost seems like a minor side character.  All this is magnified further in Part Two which, according to the program, had 92 credited roles but a whole lot of them might as well be credited as Guerrilla Soldier #12.  All in all, Guevara is the character at the center of the whole thing, and he’s the only character played by a name actor: Benicio del Toro.  Del Toro is great throughout the film, he doesn’t go through some kind of wild Oscar-bait transformation, rather he does everything he can to sell the audience on Guevara’s passion.  It seems like he’s doing everything he can to capture that look that’s in Guevara’s eyes in that famous photograph.

On the film’s technical side, it’s straight up awesome.   That “Peter Andrews” cinematography is really good here.  I said before that the film reminded me of The Wind That Shakes the Barely, and that’s largely because of the way Soderbergh places the small scale fighting amidst green Cuban scenery (though it had to be shot in Mexico, stupid embargo).  “Andrews” shoots this scenery beautifully while maintaining a gritty look, it’s a tough balancing act but it’s pulled off really well.  In contrast, the flash-forwards are filmed in high contrast black and white, it’s grainy and looks like a picture from an old television broadcast.  Perhaps through this contrast of vivid color and grainy monochrome Soderbergh is trying to suggest that Guevara was more alive during the revolution then he was while building Castro’s Cuba. The cinematography in Part 2 is quite different, the camerawork is more handheld and the colors are more desaturated.  There’s no balance between beautifully shot scenery and gritty warfare in this half, it’s all gritty.  Aurally, both films really shine, gunshots really pop and explosions are crisp; it really feels like you’re in a war. The film also avoids any musical manipulation, the latin music here is good but not intended to do anything other than augment the setting.

With Che, Soderbergh has presented us with a paradox.  He’s given us two war films about the same person, neither of them is as great without the other, yet watching them back to back also has its drawbacks.  As a history of a man’s life, the project is incomplete in spite of its extreme length, which leads me to believe that these truly are two film in spite of the roadshow presentation.  The roadshow was a nice convenience for me as it meant I didn’t have to make two trips, but if you can only see them as separate films it’s probably just as well.  Either way this isn’t a project to be missed, it’s the best war film since Letters From Iwo Jima and the most daring biopic since I’m Not There.  It’s also Soderbergh’s best work since Traffic and in spite of its flaws this is still one of the best movies released this year.

**** out of Four

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