Thursday, January 22, 2009

Che pasa?

Worst case scenario, Soderbergh's Che was going to be five hours of the sort of stuff that leads to this:

It wasn't. But unfortunately, it wasn't much of anything else either.

Incidentally, while looking for pictures of hipster-types in Che shirts, I discovered that I am way behind the times and it is now fashionable to proclaim your disdain for Guevara, even to recognize his more sanguinary excesses. Still through the medium of t-shirts though. Baby steps. This one was my favorite:

But back to the film...

There are basically two ways of looking at Che: as a charismatic, inspiring revolutionary who stood up for the downtrodden or as a murderer with a messiah complex. While devotees of either would never admit it, both views are pretty accurate. And that's where Soderbergh's movie fails- he seems unwilling to commit to the extremes of personality and myth inherent in his subject.

The five-hour epic was divided into two films, The Argentine, covering the Cuban Revolution and Che's 1964 trip to the UN and The Guerilla, depicting his abortive attempt at exporting the revolution to Bolivia. By dividing the films this way, Soderbergh neatly side-steps the most problematic period of the Che history: the intervening time in the Cuban government and his role in the mass executions of "counter-revolutionaries" as Castro consolidated power. The most infuriating thing is that Soderbergh goes out of his way to acknowledge the massacres, but in the most toothless way possible: through Che's blithe admission in his (admittedly quite eloquent) speech to the UN, "yes, we have executed; we are executing and we will continue to execute as long as it is necessary." I think this would have been a far more interesting dichotomy to explore: the humanist, the doctor who thinks nothing of using mass murder as a political tool; the liberator who becomes the jailor of La Cabana.

But really, I would have been 85% fine with a movie that romaniticized Che Guevara if it did it in an entertaining or interesting way. From a filmmaking perspective, all I can say is: meh. Part 1, The Argentine, was decent. The cinematography was beautiful, with interesting framing and saturated colors. The black and white flash-forwards to the UN speech were a nice visual contrast and well edited. There was an ensemble of supporting characters who, if not exactly fleshed-out, were at least recognizable and imbued with life and personality. Benicio del Toro did a good job of portraying Che's quiet, brainy charisma tempered with a firey, somewhat monomaniacal desire to be always on the front line, to be "a guerilla." In short, even if it didn't have much to say, The Argentine at least said it well.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Part 2, The Guerilla. Rise and fall, promise and failure- visually, everything was meant to contrast the Cuban success with the trapped, impotent feeling of the Bolivian revolutionaries. Lush jungle colors were traded for the washed-out pallette of the andean forests and cinematic widescreen traded for the seriously claustrophobic 1.85:1 format ratio. Effective visual metaphor perhaps, but not terribly pleasant or memorable.

Even worse, the narrative and pacing of The Guerilla was...nonexistent. The background characters were indistinguishable. The narrative became entirely linear and extremely plodding, and, worst of all, it wasn't even about Che! The only "character developments" poor Guevara had in the second half of this butt-numbing ordeal were predicted entirely by the FIRST MOVIE. Che's tragic flaw was that he just wasn't that good a supreme commander. He needed someone over him, someone to use his talents wisely, to hold him back or redirect his passions as needed. In the first film, Castro explicitly served this purpose. Who could doubt, given the first film, that Che on his own would not be so successful? Given this predictablity (and the fact that we all know how it ends), The Guerilla amounts to the most average war movie you can conceive of. Indeed it is worse, because I have a sneaking suspicion that Soderbergh unpardonably stretched the running time of Part 2 to achieve symmetry (Part 1 is 129 min, Part 2 is 128).

Granted, its hard to show the entirety of a person in the running time of a biopic, but with an extra three hours, I expect Soderbergh to do more, not less, in illuminating his subject. What a wasted opportunity to show us the man behind the t-shirts.


  1. Your review is most enlightening. Indeed, it seems much better contructed than its subject.

    Did the movie make clear how Che achieved his t-shirt status amongst righ white kids? And I leave out "dumb" because I knew some people who were Che-ters - and they weren't dumb. So who marketed Che and why?

  2. That would have required quite a chronographic shift and an examination of social and economic forces that have absolutely nothing to do with the man himself so, no, the movie didn't go into it. :P

  3. Thank goodness it didn't!