Director: Steven Soderbergh
By Roderick Heath
With the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh helped make American independent film into a minor religion. He followed that debut up with a battery of peculiar, uneven, but interesting works in the ’90s before finding new traction with 1999’s The Limey, a cryptic and stylish but curiously hollow neo-noir. Actually, I could attach those adjectives to most of his films, which are definable by their refined surface approximations and which made him a mainstream darling with 2001’s oddly empty sociopolitical panorama Traffic and the wittily styled, equally shallow Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh has found a niche in the last decade as a polished pseudo-auteur and pet ringmaster for various movie stars, specialising in ironically deadpan satires, genre works clad in retro chic, and occasional returns to indie cinema realism. Last year’s The Informant! was interesting chiefly for combining the disparate halves of his oeuvre and preoccupations, with its genuinely probing sense of modern American values and expansive, concerned sense of political culture, mixed in with jaunty ’70s-ish music and candy-coloured, caricatured visions of Midwestern suburbia.
His colossal Che Guevara project, on the other hand, seemed a total rejection of his Hollywood side, and it’s largely a success as that: Che looks for much of its length like something Ken Loach might have made, minus his up-the-proles sentimentality, but failing to generate the kind of gritty tragedy and rousing sense of fighting for a cause that Loach managed in his Land and Freedom and to a lesser extent his The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Che as a whole seems precisely designed to alienate the people who might have paid to see it—young faux-radicals wearing Che t-shirts—as the flavour of Soderbergh’s work is purgative, studying in unremitting detail the arduous experience of Guevara as victorious and tragic revolutionary warrior. The approach to the project, coproduced by star Benicio Del Toro, is an attempt at total resistance to any whiff of romanticisation, aiming merely for tactile realism and elemental narrative. It’s also equally possible to label Soderbergh’s cool, procedural approach as avoidance of controversy. Certainly, cautionary examples are on offer, like the infamous 1969 Richard Fleischer film Che! It is, however, a coherent unit of his career, and one that casts some of what he’s been trying to get at in new light.
Like Traffic, Che questions the cost the triumph of the United States and consumer culture has had on poorer neighbours and points out the dubious aspects of postwar American hegemony (even his otherwise totally disastrous The Good German had that element). As in many of his other films, it offers a doomed hero locked in a battle with combines and conspiracies—with the obvious difference that Guevara was a real man, one idolised and vilified with equal fervour. It’s possible either way to discern more than a dash of nostalgia in Soderbergh’s film for foreign antagonists of the U.S. and alternate political creeds about something more substantial than bristling religious prejudice and hazy geopolitical spite, for the days when even such opposites as Guevara and a U.S. senator (in this case Eugene McCarthy, played by Jon DeVries) could converse with firm but polite discourse, and for the thrill of new possibilities when Latin American socialism didn’t bring to mind the horrors of the Shining Path on one hand and the egotisms of Hugo Chavez on the other. That nostalgia is, however, troubling in itself: what exactly Guevara’s journey means to the contemporary landscape other than, in strict terms, lessons on how to fight, win, and lose guerrilla wars, is only suggested in animating spirit rather than concrete depiction. Moral necessity and moral cost are questions kept at a very distant arm’s length. One thing is certain after the film is finished: the man was determined. And even if the film’s precepts are backwards-looking, Soderbergh attempts to realise Guevara’s trials as the most immediate kind of cinema.
The ironies of Guevara’s career are captured with some dexterity. Guevara is still venerated, and comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) has become a faded figure of sclerotic despotism, largely because Guevara gave up the tricky arts of management to keep on with the gritty arts of war. Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is heard to say early on in the film that “revolution is not exportable,” in the sense that each form of revolt has to be specific to the soil from which it will spring. Yet Che forgets this in ignoring warnings that Bolivia is too xenophobic and peculiar for it to accept a simple repetition of his Cuban success. The film’s diptych structure is stimulating not only as a study of diverse outcomes, but also of perspective: what looks heroic and determined in one case looks foolish and pig-headed in the second. Present is the suggestion—not analysed—that Che’s desire to bring the revolution to Bolivia is motivated by its proximity to his native Argentina, whose sleazy dictatorship he would have held in contempt.
The screenplay by Peter Buchman, with Benjamin A. van der Veen contributing to Part Two, is adapted with few digressions and little psychological or sociological portraiture from Guevara’s own diaries and accounts. Part One is punctuated by flash-forwards to Che representing Cuba at the UN and being interviewed by journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond) in New York, his air of ruffled but towering dignity and paramilitary clothing cutting a swath through that city’s chattering classes. This stands in counterpoint to the finicky business of the actual revolution: telling off sloppy soldiers, weeding out unpromising recruits, executing criminals, listening to the tales and complaints of Cubans he and his men encounter, and a hundred other tiny aspects of turning a band of uninspiring adventurers into a popularly supported, effective army, one that he finally leads to victory in a memorably filmed sequence of street warfare in the town of Santa Clara. Che, in New York, is absorbed by Soderbergh’s camera as faintly dissociated, weary, haunted, and happy in ways that are all indefinable, whilst still fierce enough to take on the cabal of petty dictatorships and hypocrites that comprise the other American delegates—out of place at parties and amusingly exasperated by his translator’s constantly absenting himself to see the town. The suggestion is there, too, that Che’s fame came as much out of the impact he made in being seen in that environment, packing the spirit and the firm corporeal rigour of the revolutionary into his intimidating person in an incongruous context, as it did from any anecdotal triumph.
The contrast, with the younger, beardless Che and Fidel speaking seriously but amiably about their plan in an apartment in Mexico City before embarking on their Cuban adventure, is telling in itself, and even more so is the vision of Che in Bolivia, increasingly gaunt, grizzled, and wheezing in crippling asthmatic fits, engaged in what looks awfully like the kind of quixotic bourgeois adventuring he would have disdained. There he’s aided by some hangers-on of dubious relevance, like a German socialist dubbed Tania (Franka Potente), as he and all his warriors take on pseudonyms and too little organic contact with the Bolivian radicals they’re supposed to be aiding. The film takes care to note that the Soviet-backed local Communist Party refused all aid to Che, whose style and aims by this time were all too clearly as offensive to the Eastern Bloc as to the West (at least so the films suggests, whilst many historians feel that Che’s committed Marxism had the opposite effect on the Cuban revolution). The Communists instead instigate a strike that results in the massacre of miners. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s most pointed scenes of contemporary relevance, American military and intelligence personnel advise and aid the Bolivian army in tracking down their insurgents.
Soderbergh’s deliberately happenstance sense of continuity, though sometimes bewildering, is convincing in portraying a world where faces and events whip by and out of view: even Che’s battlefield romance with Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is only vaguely, tangentially suggested. “We’ve only won the war,” Che tells a cadre when Batista’s fall is announced: “The revolution starts now.” The irony there is that Che soon runs off to another war, bringing up the possibility it’s war that he’s truly best at and is now more comfortable in such situations than in his home life, and certainly not in the impersonal squabbles of governing and diplomacy. Soderbergh constantly notes Che’s immediate, interpersonal sense of decency that both inspires loyalty and hero-worship amongst his soldiers and the people he meets, and renders his sensibility finally inimicable to the kind of personality-cult leadership that Castro radiates. He also retains a good little middle class boy’s propriety for private property, as noted in the first part’s amusing coda, when he tells off some of his men for embarking on their triumphant ride to Havana in a stolen hotrod. The revolution will not be a joyride.
Soderbergh’s visual discoveries are sometimes quietly revelatory. The Cuban half is defined by a sense of dynamism, with the intercutting between war and present endowing all the bits and pieces with a sense of direction and meaning. Even the denseness of the jungle is as enclosing and reassuring as it is frustrating and arduous, for it hides the revolutionaries from their enemies. The purposefulness of the structure as well as the described narrative is always apparent, as Che and his army leave behind that jungle for the flatter hinterland and, finally, the clean white streets. In Part One, Che is shown learning how to punish transgression with some neatly disposed court justice, when he quickly shoots two of his soldiers who have turned to stealing and raping, thus prefacing his eventual comfort executing hundreds of state enemies as the militarised, expedient ethos of the battlefield became the defining key of the new nation.
In the Bolivian half, no such reassurance is present. Che and his soldiers move in less definable directions, and are as often as not discovered sitting or standing about in patient but discernable cluelessness about what to do next. Their one ambush of Bolivian soldiers is a tragicomic interlude where the enemy soldiers’ hated officer blubs and cowers, and the men are finally marched off without their guns and gear. The Bolivian landscape, often as unforgiving but more arid and less enveloping, invokes in itself the failure of Che’s efforts to flourish. He and his band are finally caught in a canyon by Bolivian soldiers whose advancing ranks, picked out in an effective long pan, are reminiscent of a similar army that appears to crush the rebels at the end of Spartacus (1960).
Che’s two parts have definite conceptual rigour in the balance and contrast that define its hemispheres, and the project retains a compelling, hypnotic flow that suggest that by stripping himself of all obvious supports, Soderbergh found a kind of purity. But conceptual rigour doesn’t guarantee depth of purpose, and what the Che diptych finally achieves is questionable for a work of such scope and heft. As a plain portrait of a man of war, it’s an undoubted success, one charged with a kind of spare poeticism and effervescent melancholia. On the other hand, it’s a film that might have infuriated Che, at least to the extent that it’s so disengaged from any personalised, dramatised sense of what he was fighting for. If Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) reduced young Ernesto Guevara to a gap-year holiday-maker who once read a political pamphlet, it nonetheless captured a sense of a man whose sensibility was fed by interaction with the world. What that world, and Guevara’s politicised interpretation of it, means to him, is much less vaguely defined here, for Soderbergh’s approach owes less to neorealism than to television documentary, where everything is depicted through snatches of interviews and wobbly glimpses of chaos. Che’s cause is explicated through recited rhetoric and snatches of sloganeering: the meaning of Guevara’s politics, both to himself and to the political business he got involved in, remains a given—and a ghost, tantalisingly and finally irritatingly out of reach. Whilst Soderbergh’s focus is coherent in intent and effective in result, he finally seems to have worked himself into a corner, where the most interesting reasons for making a film about El Che—to wrestle with recent history and understand the revolutionary appeal—have been excised.
Perhaps it’s because Soderbergh’s clearest similarity to Guevara is how both men quickly became dissatisfied with past achievements and must move on to new projects. Soderbergh’s wild pace of work in the past few years, playing with styles and technical challenges, feels the trait less of a radical than of a craftsman out to test his skills. The great amount of time and effort that Soderbergh takes to say some obvious things (revolution is hard work, failing and dying is a pain in the ass) is partly vindicated by the many small treasures he unearths along the way, but finally Che adds up to a fascinating and occasionally superb failure. It’s less suggestive of a creative mind avoiding cliché than of a process one witnesses too much these days: an artist-intellectual arguing himself into an expressive dead end.