By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 24, 2009)
Bosch: A series about a bunch of bank-robbing guerillas?
Schlesinger: What’re we going to call it –the ‘Mao Tse Tung Hour’?
Diana: Why not? They’ve got StrikeForce, Task Force, SWAT — why not Che Guevara and his own little mod squad?
-from Network (by Paddy Chayefsky)
No…wait! How about a full-length feature film about Che Guevara? No, wait….two full-length feature films, combined as a 4 ½ hour epic? We’ll throw Fidel into the mix, and make it a buddy movie. We’ll show how these two young, rugged and idealistic Marxists sowed the seeds of the Cuban Revolution with little more than a couple of guns, a rag-tag band of rebel soldiers, and a leaky boat. Then, we’ll move the action over to Bolivia, where Che plays cat and mouse in the jungle, Rambo-style, with the whole Bolivian Army looking for him…then he goes out in a blaze of glory! How’s this for a working title: “Butch Castro and the Argentine Kid”? We could get that kid who just directed another Oceans 11 sequel? Oh yeah, Soderbergh. That means he’s due for one of his Art House Cred films? Perfect!
Well, as far as Art House Cred flicks go, you could do worse than Che, Steven Soderbergh’s new biopic about one of the most iconic figures in the history of revolutionary politics. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve got your Thomas Jefferson, with the intellectualized ideals and the Declaration thingie; you’ve got your Mahatma Gandhi, with the passive resistance and the civil disobedience.
However, let’s face facts: Whose mug do you see on all the T-shirts and the dorm room posters? The stately, bewigged gentleman farmer? The lovable, bespectacled uncle? That’s not sexy. The bearded guy with the beret and the bandolier, leading his own little mod squad through the jungle like Robin Hood and his merry band, sticking it to The Man in the name of the People. Now that’s sexy.
Let’s get this out of the way first. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no martyr. By the time he was captured and executed by a unit of CIA-directed Bolivian Special Forces in October of 1967, he had played judge and jury and put his own fair share of people up against the wall in the name of the Revolution. He was Fidel Castro’s right-hand man; some historians have referred to him as “Castro’s brain”.
That said, he was a complex, undeniably charismatic and fascinating individual. By no means your average run-of-the-mill revolutionary guerilla leader, he was also well-educated, a physician, a prolific writer (from speeches and essays on politics and social theory to articles, books and poetry), a shrewd diplomat and had a formidable intellect (he “palled around” with the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; like many native Argentines, he was fluent in French as well). He was also a brilliant military tactician.
Soderbergh and his screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen have adapted their two-part story from a pair of Guevara’s own autobiographical accounts (respectively): Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary.
Part 1 begins with Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) preparing to address the U.N. in 1964, in his capacity as the head of the Cuban delegation. It was during this brief yet significant visit where Guevara’s cult of personality was first seededin America; he made a TV appearance on Face the Nation and was even feted by Senator Eugene McCarthy (both events are recreated in the film). Guevara also met with Malcolm X during this junket; although the film skips over that.
DP “Peter Andrews” ( Soderbergh in actuality…long story) shoots the footage of the 1964 trip in a stark, B&W verite style, which gives it a faux-documentary vibe and cleverly instills an effective period flavor. It also makes an eye-catching contrast to the beautifully photographed full-color flashbacks that make up the bulk of Part 1, which covers Guevara’s involvement in the Cuban revolution, beginning with his initial introduction to Castro in 1955, and culminating with an expansive, rousing, Sergio Leone-worthy recreation of the decisive battle of Santa Clara in 1958.
Regardless of your feeling on Guevara’s significance as a historical figure (or Castro’s, for that matter), what ensues in the movie’s first half is nothing less than a thoroughly absorbing, and at times downright exhilarating, piece of ace film making. What I found most fascinating about this part of the story is the amount of sheer determination and force of will that can be summoned up by people who are so thoroughly and immovably committed to an ideal.
Intellectually, it helps you grok the romanticism of “revolution” and the rock star appeal that leaders of such political movements can possess. Again, however, Castro and Guevara were no saints. They “freed” the Cuban people from an oppressive dictatorship, only to turn around and install their own oppressive dictatorship (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). And so endeth Part 1.
Part 2 is a different bailiwick. In late 1966, following an unsuccessful attempt to stir up a people’s revolution from the disarray caused by a civil war in the Congo (mentioned only in passing in the film), Guevara headed for Bolivia to see what kind of trouble he could scare up there (he was nothing, if not committed to his principles).
Unfortunately for Guevara, this venture was to lead to his final undoing. Compared to the relative cakewalk of a small island nation like Cuba, the rugged, desolate vastness of landlocked Bolivia proved to be a more daunting logistical hurdle for his preferred method of using “armed struggle” to win over the hearts and minds of the peasants; consequently this revolution didn’t quite “take”.
Since we know this going in, and after checking our watches, we also know that the film still has 135 minutes to go, the question is: How can Part 2 be as engrossing as Part 1? Well, it depends on how you look at it. If you’re the completist type (like me), naturally you’re going to want to know how the story ends.
I found Part 2 equally involving, but in a different vein. Whereas Part 1 is a fairly straightforward biopic, Part 2 reminded me of two fictional adventures with an existential bent, both of which also happen to be set in similarly torrid and unforgiving South American locales; Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Like the doomed protagonists in those films, Guevara is fully committed to his journey into the heart of darkness, and has no choice but to cast his fate to the wind and let it all play out.
A word about the presentation. My review is based on the “special road show edition” of the film that I saw here in Seattle (now playing in selected cities). This was presented as a 4 ½ hour film (ow, my ass), with a 15-minute intermission, and no opening or closing credits.
When it goes into wider release, it will be presented as The Argentine (Part 1) and Guerilla (Part 2), with individual admissions. I also noticed (to my chagrin) that it has now popped up on PPV in two parts (if your lineup includes the “IFC in Theaters” feature). I would recommend seeing it as a whole; but if your budget and/or attention span dictates otherwise, at least try to catch The Argentine if you can.