"The Face That Launched a Thousand...Poster Sales"
As I did with "W." here are some very brief political comments on the subject of the Ernesto "Che" Guevara bio-pic "Che":* I don't look at the world with red stars in my eyes, and think History has proven that Communism is a flawed political system where human beings are concerned. In the Cuban Chapter of that story, "Che" was The Revolution's question to George W. Bush's answer: An ideologue who thought nothing of spreading his vision to nations other than his own, whose patriarchal attitude towards foreign peoples blinded him to the hypocrisy of spear-heading "revolutions" that he had no part of. While Castro settled to enjoy the spoils of his coup, Che felt the need to "spread freedom" throughout the world, a "freedom" that was inherently in his country's best interests (sound familiar?). This, and other ironies are not explored too deeply in Steve Soderbergh's massive 4 1/2 hour epic, which is less a biography of Che, as it is a necessary chapter in the evolution of the "War film."
Blame the American Revolution, I guess. When those up-starts chose to battle the British in extremely non-formal (and un-cinematic) patterns, film-makers have been struggling to bring some sort of cohesion to the chaos of men at war. Face it. Watching patterns of soldiers moving forward in massive lines is great cinema. Crowds of men (you've supposedly come to know as characters) rushing forward pell-mell in a panic is tougher to capture and make sense of (though Welles did well, and Gibson). Better to keep the numbers fewer, or better yet focus on one participant, be he John Rambo or Oliver Stone's Pvt. Taylor. Bush-fighting—that's another story.
Soderbergh starts his two films** with maps: of Cuba in Part 1 (subtitled "The Argentine"); Bolivia (And South America), in Part 2 (subtitled "Guerrilla"). The major cities, territories and geographical locations are pointed out one by one, each with their own color (which made me wonder "Is that the color filter he'll be using in that location?") But it's a great technique—so great I'm surprised it hasn't been done more. The familiarization of the territory means you never have to orient the viewer again about what's happening where. And so, Soderbergh and his screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen don't have to do major scenes of exposition talking about over-arching plans before battles (especially in an improvised war). Tossed off mentions of cities will suffice. The audience will remember.
This allows Soderbergh to streamline the momentum of both movies; We're allowed to focus on characters, survival tactics and the problems of motivating volunteers on a perpetual camping trip with a dodgy supply of weapons and the opportunity for disaster around every corner (but isn't that any soldier's view of war in the field?). Nor is there the need to stop every few minutes and have a Juan Esposito character come in and talk about "The Big Picture." We've been given the run-down of the territory (and despite these being revolutions, all wars boil down to real estate.
That this revolution was a jungle war of fighters coming down from the mountains as self-employed mercenaries to either win hearts and minds of the native populace (it is stated repeatedly that Che was not Cuban, but Argentinian-it's even in the title of the first film) or to re-supply or target a government stronghold. As with any war, a lot of it depends on luck and a lot of it depends on what the other side does not know but suspects. Both elements helped the rebels defeat the Batista government forces...who were Cuban, and felt a loyalty to their homeland, and an affinity to the rebels as they were countrymen. They also didn't have much fight in them, when push came to...nothing much.
Despite a "to-the-bone" performance by Benicio Del Toro (the film is almost completely in Spanish, although those who would speak English do so), Guevara remains an enigmatic figure. There are attempts to de-mythologize him--his frequent asthma attacks make him a hindrance to the fight, but as a physician he is able to treat it to a certain extent. He starts as being the Chief Medical Officer, and gradually works his way to being a field commander and strategist. By the end of the first film, he is clearly in charge of his small brigade and the film ends with an extended house-to-house battle in Santa Clara that features a surprisingly well-orchestrated train derailment. Soderbergh shoots in an effective hand-held style, as in a news-reel (mostly shot by the director himself) that gives the street-fighting a see-it-now authenticity, rather than a well-orchestrated set-piece (which it had to have been to film).
Taking the myth out of the fight and the romance out of the struggle is a lot of what makes the marrow of "Che." We see the day-to-day problems of the guerrillas fighting disease, starvation, infection and the occasional opportunist. Soderbergh and his screenwriters put forth a Che Guevara who is principled to "The Revolutionary Code," with a piece-meal sense of morality. The portrait is a noble one, but the film-makers subtly undercut it, allowing cracks between the lines, details that are not called attention to. Although a supposedly brilliant strategist, Che (and Castro, nicely portrayed by Demian Bichir) are seen frequently smoking cigars in conversation. Unless the jungle's on fire wouldn't that be a tell-tale sign to patrols that there are humans nearby? Not to mention that those Cuban cigars are made through the exploitation of Cuban nationals (and mostly women at that, in sweat-shop conditions). Women are seen fighting with the guerrillas, but that macho attitude doesn't seem to be applied to them. At one point, Che's second flirts obliquely with him, which he deflects by mentioning his wife and child in Mexico City, although by the start of the next film, he is married to her (with three kids).
Soderbergh is not-so-subtle in one juxtaposition. At the beginning of the second film, Castro reads Che's farewell letter in which he states his intention that should he die, his last image will be the same blue sky seen by his Cuban comrades. When his last moment comes Soderbergh switches (for the first time) to a point-of-view shot to show us the unromantic reality of his last vision.
If there is anything marring Soderbergh's scrupulously lived-in presentation, it is in the "star-cameo's" that occasionally crop up to jar you out of the situation, as much as they do in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." Franke Potente and Julia Ormond (in a blonde wig so as to be unrecognizable, but really, can one make a serious picture these days without Julia Ormond?) are seen in city surroundings where their movie-star looks blend a bit, but jungle scenes of Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips tug right out of the jungle and back into Hollywood.
But the arc of the two movies allows you to see the "Che" you want to see: the "Che" triumphing in adversity of Part 1, or "Che" scrabbling into an inevitable defeat in Part 2. There's a lot of history not gone into in-between, but for the polarized, and the polarizing this will do for now.
* Thus, avoiding Godwin's Law: The longer an Internet string, the more inevitable a comparison to Hitler will be made. I've seen too many comment threads on this film devolve into the "Evil Che" harangue (usually by people who haven't seen it). Thank you. That corner exists on the Internet somewhere and I would suggest going there, even though I'm not entirely unsympathetic. But if it shows up in this comments section it will be erased...permanently. Any attempts to add it again will be erased...permanently. Try to add it again, and you should check into a hospital because you're clearly trying to see a different result from the exact same action and that is a sign of insanity. I have no patience with ideologues who've long stopped thinking. I'm here to discuss the film, and I'll discuss it or "The Birth of a Nation" or "Triumph of the Will." Film is controversy--unless it's "Marley & Me"...and even then...
**After its "Road-Show" performance (which is the one I saw), "Che" will be released separately (if all goes according to plan) as "Che, Part 1: The Argentine" and "Che, Part 2: Guerrilla." IFC, which is distributing the film, is also making it available as a Pay-per-View Event.
***One more thing, completely tangential: During his ill-fated campaign in Bolivia (after his never-mentioned ill-fated campaign in the Congo) Guevara lived under a series of code-names, as he was trying to keep his presence in that country a secret. In Part Two, he's known as "Ramon" and then in his last days, as "Fernando." I walked in not soon after the Inauguration whistling "Black Superman-Muhammad Ali," but walked out with " Fernando" in my head. I don't think the writers of the Abba song were making a connection.