Monday, February 2, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

There's a limit to how many Americans will watch a four-hour movie shot mainly in Spanish, so the Internet chat about Che focuses mainly on why director Steven Soderberg made the movie, with a lot of carping from Che haters who see it as a whitewash.

Watching Soderbergh do the publicity dance on YouTube won’t tell you much about his motives. “I was interested in Che as a warrior, Che as a guy who has an ideology who picked up a gun,” was the closest I could find to an answer. But this scrupulously unsensationalistic movie speaks loud and clear if you're willing to lean in and listen.

Soderbergh, Del Toro, and screenwriter Peter Buchman clearly admire their subject, who comes off as a deeply caring, charismatic man who loves Latin America’s campesinos and hates the repressive class and political systems that keep them mired in poverty, ignorance, and fear. He’s also a by-any-means-necessary revolutionary, convinced you can topple oppressive regimes only by force.

As the often hand-held camera follows Che and his men and occasional women through the jungles of Cuba and Bolivia, you get a stripped-down sense of how it may have felt to wage those particular revolutions. And as this two-part epic outlines his strategies and philosophy, we have plenty of time to wonder why the same tactics worked almost magically in Cuba and failed dismally elsewhere.

It’s easy to see why the Che haters are so worked up about this movie. For one thing, it focuses on the romanticized idealism of armed resistance to injustice, side-stepping the harder questions of how to rebuild and lead a nation. As Che himself says to one of his men at the end of Part 1, just after he’s helped Fidel Castro oust General Batista: “We just won the war. The revolution begins now.”

But the real problem for those who hate Castro and his commandante is how good they look here. The filmmakers have reclaimed the idealized Che of all those T shirts and posters, making him three-dimensional again. Their Che is never larger than life -- and that's part of what makes him great. He’s just wants to be one of the guys. Maybe that’s why he seems most at home in the jungle, reading one of his omnipresent books or joking with one of his men.

Del Toro’s Che has a matter-of-fact directness and humor that goes a long way toward breaking down barriers between people -- but some people even he can’t put at ease, like the young servant, who can't stop acting servile around Che, despite his gentle insistence that his followers think for themselves. “A country that doesn’t know how to read and write is a country easy to deceive,” he says.

This is the kind of father every struggling country needs.

Soderbergh’s framing (the director shot the movie himself, and the cinematography is beautiful) undercuts the usual Hollywood hero treatment, favoring group shots over close-ups and shooting all the rebels and peasants – Che included – in all their sweaty, unglamorous grunge.

Buchman uses telling moments from Che’s diaries to bring Che and the daily life of the camps he helped create to life. Che’s and Fidel’s political and military strategies and beliefs are woven in deftly, as Buchman uses things they said in interviews and speeches and avoids hokey proclamations.

Part 1 is the story of the Cuban revolution. We cut between 1964, in which Che is representing Cuba in the UN, and the months leading up to the revolution in the 50s. In the 60s, he’s engaged in a cat-and-mouse interview with an American journalist played by Julia Ormond, who exudes so much Mod-era cool her whole body seems to have been Botoxed.

Meanwhile, back in the ‘50s, Che sets up camp in the jungle, recruiting and training troops and winning the hearts and minds of the locals (he demonstrates what the revolution will bring by building a school, a printing press, and a hospital) while Fidel (a convincingly commanding Demi├ín Bichir) takes care of the big picture, cooking up strategy and forming allegiances with other rebel groups. It all builds to the final showdown, a gripping reenactment of the battle of Santa Clara that feels as if it’s playing out in real time.

Part 2 starts almost a decade later. This time, Che is in charge, leading a campaign to overturn the Bolivian government. Once again, he sets up camp in the jungle, but this time the locals are more suspicious and fearful, more prone to rat out the rebels. There’s also more infighting and mistrust among the rebels themselves, partly because many feel disrespected by the foreigners running their revolution (Che was from Argentina, and some of his right-hand men in Bolivia were Cubans.)

And there’s trouble from outside: The head of Bolivia’s Communist Party won’t cooperate with the rebels and the U.S. has sent military advisors to train a “special forces” division of the Bolivian Army.

If Part 1 is a feel-good story, Part 2 is a downer. Even the landscape in Bolivia is darker as Che and his steadily diminishing troops slog toward defeat. But the two are flip sides of the same coin. Put together, like two mirrors reflecting each other into infinity, they point to areas worth exploring.

Is a military coup the best way to bring down a repressive regime? Can a national rebellion led by outsiders ever succeed? The ideology that fueled Che’s revolts may be on the wane, but the questions raised by his writing and fighting are as relevant as ever.

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