The Argentine / Guerrilla
Spain / France / USA, 2008
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 07 October 2008
Source 35mm print
Categories The 46th New York Film Festival
With its own sneezable, monosyllabic title, Che seems to fit the new model of the Hollywood biopic reasonably well: find a subject with single-word name-recognition and title your film accordingly. The idea here, I suppose, is to give the subject the hominess of a wacky neighbor or a member of one’s corporate softball league - Ali, Frida, Capote - and it works even better if you can find someone recognizable by only a single syllable - Ray, Milk - or even by a single initial - X, W. This serves two functions: to point up both how widely identifiably that person is (“You know the guy I mean. He’s famous!”), and yet how simple and familiar he is (“You couldn’t possibly hate a little, old letter like ‘W.’”). It’s bite-size history—easy to consume, empathize with, and forgive.
These films are always balancing acts between the big stage of international acclaim and the dressing rooms of everyday life, and it’s puzzling how few of these films are at all remarkable (Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch being the only fully engaged examples that I can think of). Their subjects are often figures of massive historical importance, whose personae are as plastic and self-spun as they are interwoven into the fabric of world events. And yet most of these films are merely examples of protracted ventriloquism, finding famous actors who vaguely resemble their subjects and then recapitulating those events and characteristics that made these individuals famous in the first place. It’s a strangely self-defeating project, purporting to glimpse behind the curtain of historical mythmaking by reprocessing the subject through Hollywood’s own myth-machine.
Che, with its four-plus hour duration, linguistic authenticity (i.e. it’s not in English), big-name star, and politically volatile subject, is officially an Important Film about an Important Person—or at least it wishes to sell itself as one. What is perhaps interesting, even unique, about Steven Soderbergh’s film in the context of other similar films is that its subject remains so _un_processed. It’s difficult to imagine watching one-sixth of a full day of film about Ernest “Che” Guevara de la Serna and learning almost nothing about him. But this is, for what it’s worth, Soderbergh’s feat, a diptych of extraordinary surface import and almost no insight, or even curiosity, about the causes or effects of such historic impact. This lack of concern for before and after, this faith in merely experiencing and not thinking or talking about Che, would give Soderbergh’s film an almost Buddhist aspect were it not for the film’s peculiar, fundamentalist faith in the personality cult of its titular guerrilla. Soderbergh seems to believe that by merely reciting two big moments in his subject’s life, with a lot of research and little analysis, the real Che will stand up.
The film’s first part begins, after a maddeningly protracted lesson in Cuban geography, with an interview, a microphone check, a cigar, and a beret. Here are the props of Che, a famous historical personage on his famous historical 1964 trip to New York, explaining why he is famous and historical. (These opening shots are in black and white, not so much because Soderbergh has any insights into the mediations of history and imagemaking, but because they happened a long time ago.) From there, we are whisked back in time to Mexico City and his 1955 recruiting meeting with Fidel Castro (played by the very convincing and enjoyable Demián Bichir), then to a guerrilla-filled boat across the Gulf of Mexico, then to Cuba. Here, with no background on Batista or the lives of Cuban peasants, and only the hastiest of political discussions, Che learns and teaches a few lessons in revolutionary protocol, displays that he’s a crack shot with a bazooka, and fights his way through asthma and an Argentine accent to earn the respect of his men.
After two hours, we leave him, his men, and his new girlfriend on the road to Havana and victory, compelled along by the inevitability of history, if not by any political conviction, nationalist fervor, or revolutionary passion onscreen. To be sure, in flashes-forward to New York, there is much sexy U.N. podium-pounding about American Imperialism, as well as some fun, semi-factual moments. At a swanky Manhattan party, Che sarcastically thanks Eugene McCarthy for the Bay of Pigs invasion and the resulting polarization that, Che claimed, aided the Revolution. No matter that Che sent these thanks in a note to Kennedy, and that McCarthy was actually critical of the invasion—this is history, in black, white, and color, regardless of the beliefs of those who participated in it or why it happened in the first place.
The why’s of Che’s Bolivian bungle are similarly glossed (or glossed over) in the second two-hour part of the film, leaving the jagged history of Cuba from 1958 onwards, and Che’s realpolitiking and travels to the Congo and elsewhere elided entirely. This second half is much like the first: after an even more condescending GoogleMapping of South America, Che secretes himself into another foreign country of disenfranchised peasants and tries once again to scare up something like a revolution. Only this time it fails, partly because those in power (who actually appear onscreen this time) have the support and know-how of the USA at their disposal. This half of the picture thus rehearses much of the first part - only shot in a rougher, handheld and less lustrous, Hollywoody style and less expansive aspect ratio - only these events are beset with a lot more miscalculation, disorganization, and asthma attacks, and a lot less local support. His guerrillas outmanned and outflanked, Che is eventually captured and executed.
What Che amounts to in its four-hour duration is a curious failure—neither the facile, reductive narrative that one might expect from prior samples of its genre, nor the equivocal questioning of the man-behind-the-t-shirt-design that its monolithic subject deserves. It becomes clear early on that Soderbergh is the wrong filmmaker for this subject—disinterested in (or merely skittish about) Che’s political beliefs, his film remains so concerned about the historical accuracy of its rather narrow focus that it hasn’t the interest or temerity to convey anything larger or more worthwhile. Faced with a subject as enormous, influential, controversial, and important as Che (to say nothing of Cuba itself), Soderbergh’s film resolves to merely show, rather than say, a lot about Che. But in this case, a lot is not enough, and the result is essentially a fairly soulless war movie double-feature. This is not exactly boring - there’s a lot of shooting, as you might imagine - but it’s not exactly insightful either. It calls to mind, especially in its first half, the 1964 Russian account of some of these events in Soy Cuba, and in its own way, it’s as deeply ideological, too. Capitalist where Kalatozov is communist, Soderbergh makes the individual hero and his concerns the focus and interest, remaining largely disinterested in the events and people around him. As if to confirm this, Benicio del Toro gives a remarkable and magnetic performance with almost no substance, a wonderful tribute to the actor’s charisma (which may well be very like Che’s own) with almost nothing to pin it on. Throw in some cameo appearances by Matt Damon, Franka Potente, and Lou Diamond Phillips (!), and a fine but repetitive score by the great Alberto Iglesias, and we have a portrait of Che Guevara as the ultimate historical commodity—all fact and no insight, all action and no consequence, something for everyone and nothing offensive.
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