Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

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Devil or saint, tyrant or revolutionary, murderer or freedom fighter, desire for reform or power-hungry – it’s not easy classifying Che Guevara as this kind of person or that, or heaven forbid, placing him on one side of the moral spectrum or the other.  His accomplishments as a revolutionary, a soldier, and a Commandante are well-known, as are his alleged atrocities and extreme political views.  His and Fidel Castro’s impressive overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s regime in Cuba is well-renowned and was done in the name of equality for all, but then again, look at the state of Castro’s Cuba all these years later.  Guevara’s extreme leftist politics are admired by many, and that famous image of him in his heroic pose has practically become a banner and a symbol of solidarity, and yet his alleged human rights violations and executions and murders are just as well-known as his ideologies.  You love him or hate him, but I myself can do neither, because I know so little about the man – he’s an enigma, and there’s no easy way to classify him as either well-intentioned or pure evil, or any number of categories in-between.  Steven Soderbergh, in his enormously ambitious 4-hour epic about Guevara, doesn’t attempt to make that classification, and rightly so.  “Che” is not an all-encompassing biography of Che Guevara from childhood to execution – cliché and banalities that way lie.  Soderbergh splits his massive film into two parts, each focusing on one episode in Guevara’s life – his staggering success in the Cuban Revolution, and his just as staggering failure to repeat that success in Bolivia years later.  Sure there’s little snippets of flashback to his more humble family life or the planning stages of the Cuban Revolution in Mexico, and Part One’s Cuban campaign is intercut with his address to the United Nations years later, but other than that “Che” deals only with these two campaigns, pretty much chronologically and with an agonizing attention to detail of the day-to-day operations and goings-on of Guevara’s men.  That pretty much makes it impossible for the film, even at four hours, to paint a full portrait of Che Guevara’s actions and motivations – we see him in his element, wading through jungle brush or being the charismatic politician-type before the U.N., nothing more.  No stock explanations or excuses for who he is, why he did things both great and terrible, just his actions, unfettered and without bias.

The closest we get to backstory is a small scene at the beginning where we find Che Guevara, a mild-mannered and well-dressed Argentine doctor in Mexico, planning to overthrow the Cuban government with Fidel Castro and others.  No reason for this, we don’t know what drove Guevara to join up with these people or how he came to adopt the political views that lead to a desire to violently overthrow an entire military regime (his famous journey by motorcycle through South America as a young medical student is never even mentioned).  Why does this Argentine doctor want to risk life and limb to become a revolutionary soldier, and why does he believe so strongly in these leftist ideals?  Or does he really believe in it at all?  He certainly doesn’t seem that into it in these early scenes (and in fact seems quite tentative during that dinner and on the boat heading towards Cuba), and his spouting of political ideologies with that golden tongue of his in an interview and before the U.N. later on do seem a bit staged, so why is he the way he is?  Why is it so alarming to see this soft-spoken doctor in one scene, only to see that same man in the very next scene in full military garb and larger than life, wading his way through protestors in New York who want to see him dead?  We never find out – we dive headlong from these planning stages right into the long and arduous trek through the Cuban jungle.  We get a sense of what kind of a leader Guevara is – a strict disciplinarian who never leaves an injured man behind, who demands that his young soldiers study their math and language textbooks while the group rests, who has no problem executing two soldiers who deserted the unit and raped a young peasant.  His devotion to even the lowest men in his unit’s hierarchy and his willingness to provide medical care for farmers is admirable, and the small glimpses of his infamous atrocities are terrible, and Benicio del Toro is magnificently understated in making the audience neither admire nor hate his Che Guevara, but simply observe him – he’s just a man doing his thing.  In fact, in both halves of “Che,” I was surprised at how Guevara was rarely the sole focus – really, the focus was on every man under his command, the camaraderie between them and how they work together as a cohesive unit to accomplish their goals – or in the case of Bolivia, how they fail to accomplish those goals.  

With that, what we have is, at least in Cuba, a point-A-to-point-B action/adventure/war/journey film, where del Toro’s Che Guevara is obviously the most recognizable of the men, but far from the chief focus.  It’s a step-by-step, meticulously-detailed chronicle of a grass roots guerilla campaign, right down to the Battle of Santa Clara that’s as thrilling and realistic as any on-screen battle you’ll see.  Black and white footage of Guevara being interviewed and giving his speech before the U.N. is intercut with his and his men’s daily struggle to survive in the Cuban jungle, perhaps giving some ideological perspective on why they’re risking their lives, but really, that’s not necessary.  I found the intercutting of those two time periods more ironic than anything, with Guevara in New York seeming incredibly facetious and disingenuous in laying out his political dogmas inserted right into the chronicle of the revolution, where Guevara seems intent as all hell in succeeding, for reasons only he knows and we can only speculate on.  Is he really overthrowing a government to give economic equality to farmers and peasants, as Castro claims to be doing, or is there some kind of ulterior motive?  Either way, what’s for certain is that from the get-go in the Cuban half of the film, the overriding feeling is that Guevara and his men will succeed, that they’re a flawless machine that can march straight into Havana and pluck Batista right out of his office if they really wanted to, and Soderbergh’s cinematography is as responsible for that as anything (yes, Soderbergh directed “Che” and did his own cinematography.  This was a true labor of love.).  In Part One, the widescreen compositions are awe-inspiring, the greens of the Cuban jungle are lush and beautiful, and the open fields where Guevara’s men assist and recruit farmers to their cause – the key component to the Revolution’s success – are expansive.  You just feel like they’re making a beeline first for Santa Clara and then Havana, that everything is going right, that the land itself is welcoming these revolutionaries with open arms and giving them the keys to the kingdom, and even victory in the Battle of Santa Clara, while still extremely thrilling to watch, seems all but inevitable for this well-oiled machine being commandeered by Che Guevara before our eyes, and by Fidel Castro more behind the scenes.  

But, as optimistic as things seem in Cuba for Guevara, things seem just as utterly hopeless in Bolivia.  The bright lighting in Part One gives way to the dreary fog of the Bolivian mountains and a much grayer color tone, the open spaces and widescreen compositions give way to more confined spaces, and the stationary camera regarding the characters from a relative distance now give way to uncomfortable low-angle close-ups.  In Cuba, the sun was bright and the jungle, while dense, sill formed a clear path to victory.  In Bolivia, it’s claustrophobic, and the elements and the U.S.-backed Bolivian army close in around Guevara’s suddenly ragtag group of fighters – Guevara’s downfall is as inevitable as his success was in Cuba.  There are intermittent scenes in Part Two here and there in which the Bolivian President coordinates the campaign against Guevara’s rebels, and the army itself marching right on Guevara’s heels, but unlike the somewhat disjointed time structure of Part One, Part Two is a straight chronological path from Day One to Day 341 – a straight chronological path to oblivion for Che Guevara, capable Commandante in Cuba hopelessly out of his element in Bolivia.  Even as his men die around him, and he knows all hope is pretty much lost, he never really loses his cool – say what you want about the extreme ideologies and harsh methods of Che Guevara that’re mostly not touched upon in this film, but from start to finish he’s the consummate soldier, and that’s a testament to the understated Benicio del Toro, who despite being intimidating by his mere presence never overplays Guevara and gives this impossible to read historical figure an incredible air of dignity.  And Guevara’s rise to prominence and precipitous fall as portrayed by the film is testament to Soderbergh’s mastery of the camera to materialize Guevara’s mindset in the world around him.  Sure, for a moment or two Soderbergh’s stylistic eccentricities of the past rear their head unexpectedly, like a key first-person perspective shot late in the film that’s probably Soderbergh reaching too far for style points but is nonetheless an extremely haunting and unsettling moment.  But for the most part, the action and the psychology dictate the production value, and it’s understated, but incredibly effective.  “Che” is very long, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it an epic – its timeframe is pretty much confined to two short episodes in the man’s life, and our questions about Che Guevara’s motivations or true nature go unanswered for the most part.  All we’re given is a glimpse of the man living his extraordinary life without bias or outside commentary, an endurance test for him and a 4-hour endurance test for us (though it does move at a rather brisk pace for a 4-hour film – the ultimate compliment for a long movie), and for my money that’s a hell of a lot more compelling and eye-opening, and truthful, than any speculative answer-searching.

9.5/10

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