Steven Soderbergh’s endlessly fascinating portrait of the legendary Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in action is willfully disinterested in the conventions and seductions of mainstream Hollywood movies—either biopics or war flicks—or even the dogmatic imperatives of European political cinema. Benicio del Toro’s performance is likewise neither flamboyant nor mythically heroic, nor is there a single shot designed to show him larger than life. So the Spanish-speaking Che is not aimed at the multiplex crowd or the arthouse audience. It’s a timeless gift not so much to America, north, as to our Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south, from Mexico down through Central America all the way to the tip of South America.
"The Argentine," part one of the two-picture epic, follows Che from his introduction to Fidel Castro in the mid-‘50s at a dinner party in Mexico City through the triumphant battle for Santa Clara that clinched the Cuban revolution. We all know that Castro’s forces ousted Batista, of course, yet Soderbergh has no problem generating suspense and momentum. He does it not by delineating some overarching military strategy or high-contrast good vs. evil dialectic, but with a smooth succession of scenes depicting Che’s low-key but no-nonsense leadership.
A pipe-puffing, cigar-smoking asthmatic, Che knows how to savor every moment of pleasure, even while living rough. He never wastes a second; any downtime is spent writing in his journal or reading. He views the revolution as essential not only for justice and economic opportunity (in the form of land reform), but also as the motor for universal education.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman interweave the 1959 Cuba campaign with Che’s 1964 visit to New York to address the United Nations. These scenes—shot in black-and-white—have the grainy feel of history; as a result, Che’s (color) experience in Cuba doesn’t have the hermetic feeling of an extended flashback but the immediacy of life on the fly. The New York vignettes add all sorts of depth to the extended character study that is "The Argentine," from Che’s brief conversation with a cook to a bit of banter with Sen. Gene McCarthy at an upper-crust cocktail party.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the revolution’s powerful political undercurrent is expressed more directly in Manhattan than in Cuba’s hilly backcountry. An interview with a journalist (Lena Olin) allows Che to make various consciousness-expanding observations, but it’s his appearance at the U.N. that underscores the hemispheric (if not global) implications of the Cuban Revolution, and casts into sharp relief the United States’ abysmal record in Latin America.
The diplomatically worded yet unambiguous interchanges in the U.N. are the standout moments where Soderbergh, with Che, is speaking directly to the American public. Thankfully, neither "The Argentine" nor "Guerilla" approaches a grinding halt for an endless discussion of political theory, philosophy and Marxism, like, say, Land and Freedom, Ken Loach’s saga of the Spanish Civil War. But we are subtly reminded of the ugly fact that the United States, in a misguided strategy to further its economic and global political interests, has repeatedly thrown in with dictators, bullies and mendacious opportunists whose values are antithetical to the ideals this country continues to espouse. (The contemporary resonance, of course, is George W. Bush’s erstwhile endeavor to spread democracy to Iraq.)
But the overall impression we’re left with, especially after "Guerilla," is that Soderbergh wasn’t interested in making political points to North Americans as much as capturing Che’s wisdom and commitment for young people in the Americas to discover for generations to come. Soderbergh is one of our smartest and most politically aware filmmakers, and if it didn’t sound so condescending, I’d say that he has made the most artful and intelligent educational film in history.
"Guerilla" picks up just a few years later with the restless revolutionary leaving Cuba to take up the struggle in Bolivia. Che enters the country with a falsified passport to begin building the resistance and training fighters, fully aware that news of his presence would awaken the government and thwart his progress. It’s symptomatic of everything that goes wrong there that a compadre’s unintentional error blows his secret not long after his arrival.
It’s one of the odd flukes of history, or at least of the movies, that Che met his fate in the same country as outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A more valuable correlative is to note that "Guerilla" was shot in Bolivia (Puerto Rico doubled for Cuba in "The Argentine"), reflecting that at least some of Che’s goals have been achieved, four decades later, by Pres. Evo Morales.
From an entertainment standpoint, Soderbergh eschews the dramatic rhythms and emotional crescendos of the typical (and typically popular) Hollywood biopic. The upshot is that both halves of Che are completely riveting moment to moment, yet don’t elicit a powerful reaction once the credits roll, the lights come up and the narrative relaxes its grip. Soderbergh is betting that 21st Century audiences no longer require John Ford-style myth-making thunder and treacle to grasp a man’s greatness. That may ultimately turn out to be Che‘s greatest contribution to the revolution.
Editor’s note: Che opens Friday, January 16 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco in a roadshow engagement (ticket purchase includes a commemorative booklet and both films) with director Steven Soderbergh present opening night.
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