Soderbergh's Che biopic falls short of its subject

Reviewed by Dani Barley

Che: Part One (The Argentine)
Runtime: 126 minutes
Che: Part Two (Guerrilla)
Runtime: 131 minutes
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Peter Buchman, based on the writings of Che Guevara
Starring Benicio del Toro, Demian Bichir and Catalina Sandino Moreno
Australian release date unknown

Ernesto “Che” Guevara is one of, if not the most, recognisable symbols of rebellion. The iconic image of him, taken by Alberto Korda at a mass rally in Havana on March 5, 1960, has been emblazoned on everything from posters and T-shirts to music albums and bath soaps. His image has at times become a visual shorthand for counter-culture and, as it has been commodified, Che’s image has been removed from its revolutionary socialist origins. US film director Steven Soderbergh set out to explain the man behind the image, but fell sadly short of the mark with a beautifully shot, but overly long epic that never really feels epic.

The task was never going to be simple. Che accomplished a great deal in his brief life, and many parts of it lend themselves to a glossy Hollywood treatment — a foreign-born revolutionary willing to risk his life for his beliefs in an attempt to rid Latin America of imperialist exploitation, a prolific and eloquent writer, etc. It’s commendable that Soderbergh avoided the usual cliches and trappings, but the film still feels as if it is lacking something.

Part One (also known as The Argentine and based largely on Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War) begins slowly on the night Che first met Fidel Castro at a dinner party in Mexico. The politics are never really explained, but Che agrees to join Fidel’s July 26 Movement, and we next see him aboard the rickety boat Granma en route to Cuba. The film chronicles, in unrelenting detail, the tedium of the next two years as the rebels recruit, train and engage with the Cuban peasants while trying to stay one step ahead of US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s army. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Soderbergh said: “I didn’t want to have the scene where the guy goes, ‘Why do they call you Che?’ Or his hat flies off in a battle and somebody offers him a beret. I just didn’t want to do that stuff ... I was interested in making a procedural about guerrilla warfare.”

Tedium in the jungle

Procedural is correct. Clinical may be more apt. Soderbergh seems to revel in moments of mediocrity with scenes that don’t progress the plot or character development at all but merely drag on the overall flow of the film. This feeling is multiplied by the fact that the film comes in at a whopping four hours and 18 minutes — far too long when you consider the brevity of the parts involved and the parts of Che’s life and legacy that the film doesn’t touch upon.

The tedium of the jungle scenes is intercut with Che’s 1964 trip to New York City to address the UN General Assembly. Shot in newsreel style black and white, these scenes provide not only a narrative and visual break, but a chance to bring some politics into the mix. Although short, these are the most dynamic moments of the entire film.

Part One ends as they travel towards Havana in early 1959, fresh after the victory in the Battle of Santa Clara. It ends on a note of measured triumph, but not nearly the celebratory nature appropriate to the situation. Part Two (also known as Guerilla and based on his Bolivian Diaries) begins in October 1965 with Fidel reading Che’s “good-bye” letter to the Cuban people. Che, wanting to replicate the success of the Cuban revolution with further socialist triumphs, leaves Cuba and eventually travels to Bolivia in disguise in November 1966 to attempt to start a revolution there.

Bolivia

Going by the name Ramon through much of the film, Che meets a series of unanticipated complications that contributed to his capture and subsequent execution at the hands of the CIA-supported Bolivian army on October 9, 1967. The Communist Party of Bolivia (PCB) reneged on its pledge of support for Che, thought to be largely because of his public critiques of the Soviet regime, with which the PCB was aligned. Unlike in Cuba, the peasants were largely sceptical of the guerrillas thanks to an effective anti-foreigner fear campaign orchestrated by the Bolivian government. The largest difference came from the fact that the poorly equipped Bolivian military received substantial aid from Washington, fearful of the spread of anti-capitalist revolution. The Bolivian military received supplies, training and tactical advice from the CIA’s Special Activities Division.

Part Two also spends a lot of time in the jungle. Unlike Part One, however, you feel more listless and hopeless as the narrative progresses. Even if you didn’t know the historical outcome, it becomes pretty clear what is going to happen to this small band of insurgents. Again, the politics of the time are thin on the ground, with one notable exception. Early in the Part Two, Che is attempting to convince PCB leader Mario Monje to supply the support Che was originally promised. Monje argues, “Conditions are not right for the kind of struggle you propose”.

Che responds: “Anywhere in the world where men are being exploited by men, the conditions are right. When children work in mines and 50 percent of miners don’t reach the age of 30. When these same miners go on strike to improve their wages and they are massacred by the army, are those conditions right, or not? If infant mortality rates are the highest in Latin America because of lack of hospitals and medical care, the situation is right for me. If we learned something in Cuba, it’s that a popular uprising that isn’t backed by armed struggle has no chance of taking power.”

That scene, brilliant in its simplicity and lack of dogmatic brow-beating (hello Michael Moore), eloquently sums up Che’s ideals and motivations. Why Soderbergh (and del Toro, for that matter, who served as co-producer of both films as well as original researcher when the project was in its infancy) chose not to include more scenes such as this is anyone’s guess. While rightwingers attempt to paint Guevara as a cold-blooded thug, it’s frustrating to watch Che portrayed, albeit with great skill by del Toro, in such a sterile manner. If Che felt an urge to spread revolution across Latin America, you wouldn’t have guessed it from a large portion of this portrayal. The two notable exceptions are the scene described above and the segments from his address to the UN.

Revolutionary passion

It’s difficult to examine Che in such a sterile manner. You have to understand his passion to get to his motivations, and this film doesn’t get there. He comes across as distant and his politics seem more formulaic than fervently held and passionate beliefs (as his writings and speeches in Cuba amply testify). This film lacks the zeal and the hope from previous film incarnations, notably Walter Salles’ 2004 The Motorcycle Diaries. In terms of embracing the revolutionary politics of its subjects, Julie Taymor’s Frida does it better.

That is not to say this production is without merit. Both films are well cast (del Toro is striking and Demian Bichir, who portrays Fidel, does so brilliantly) and contain beautiful cinematography. But even in terms of an epic film, it seems to miss the chance for a great cinematic moment. Che biographer Jon Lee Anderson recounted in his seminal 1997 work Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life that Che remarked to his executioner: “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

The scene in Soderbergh’s film is nothing like this. It is unclear why such a discrepancy exists given the years of research Anderson and Soderbergh are said to have devoted to their respective works. While one can certainly admire what Soderbergh and company set out to do, it feels, time and time again, as if they fell far short of capturing the spirit and the eloquence of the man behind the image.

As important to this critique as what was tediously included are the large periods left out. While Part One briefly refers to the initial meeting between Che and Fidel, it ignores his travels prior to that, which are as important to understanding him as an in-depth conversation with a Cuban farmer about purchasing a few of his suckling pigs.

Seeing imperialism first hand

Born in Argentina in 1928, Che was exposed to revolutionary socialist ideas from an early age, reading the Communist Manifesto and Capital when he was 16. In his university years, he studied Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Engels’ Anti-Duhring and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. Before completing his medical degree, he took two years off to travel around South America and was exposed first hand to the human toll of capitalism — widespread poverty, misery and disenfranchisement of large numbers of people throughout the region. By the end of his journey, he came to the conclusion that the only solution to the injustice would be an armed anti-capitalist revolution.

After finishing his medical degree in 1953, he travelled to Guatemala, where popularly elected president Jacobo Arbenz had begun to carry out a number of radical reforms: raising minimum wages, decriminalising political activity and starting a land reform in an attempt to end the country’s grossly unequal estate system. In response to Arbenz’s expropriation of unused land owned by the United Fruit Company, Washington equipped a military force from Honduras to invade Guatemala. Arbenz rejected calls to arm the working people, and was ousted by a coup in 1954, replaced by right-wing military figure Carlos Castillo Armas, who quickly rescinded the political freedoms and economic reforms.

These events solidified Che’s conviction regarding the solution to the problems of Latin America. He realised the futility of relying on capitalist governments to stand up to the chief enemy of the people, US imperialism. To win, the workers and peasants would have to create their own army and smash the previous capitalist state, replacing it with a workers’ and peasants’ republic.

‘Stop crying and fight’

From Guatemala, Che headed to Mexico and it was there, in 1956, that he met Fidel. According to Che, after his experiences throughout the continent, “it did not take much to arouse my interest in joining any revolution against tyranny ... I shared his optimism. It was imperative to do something, to struggle, to achieve. It was imperative to stop crying and fight.”

After the victory in 1959, the Cuban revolutionary regime reduced electricity rates and rents, outlawed racial discrimination and introduced an agrarian reform that resulted in a mass redistribution of land to the peasants. In October 1959, Che became became head of the Industry Department of the revolutionary government’s National Institute of Agrarian Reform, which organised workers to nationalise the country’s urban and rural industries. In November 1959, Che was appointed president of the National Bank of Cuba. In February 1961, he headed the newly formed Ministry of Industry.

Sensitive to the dangers of bureaucracy (administration by privileged officials), especially while Cuba’s workers and farmers lacked administrative knowledge, Che stressed that the working people must be empowered to run things. “Society as a whole must be converted into a gigantic school”, he declared.

Che never ignored the fact that any struggle for the liberation of the oppressed had to be international. Isolated, Cuba could only bring inspiration and hope, but without other socialist revolutions, Cuba would struggle to survive against an incredibly strong opponent. His opinion became solidified after the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. In contrast to the Soviet policy of “peaceful coexistence” (in reality, attempted collaboration) with imperialism, Che called for a policy of revolutionary internationalism to unite revolutionaries against their the imperialist enemy. Inspired by the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese workers and peasants against their US invaders, he called for the creation of “two, three, many Vietnams”.

Leaving Cuba in 1965, Che sought to create another anti-capitalist revolution. He travelled first to the Congo and then Bolivia. In his farewell letter to Fidel he stated: “Other nations of the world call for my modest efforts. I can do that which is denied you because of your responsibility at the head of Cuba, and the time has come for us to part. I want it known that I do so with a mixture of joy and sorrow ... I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be.”

Che’s revolutionary struggle against imperialist capitalism remains alive today, in the Cuban and Venezuelan socialist revolutions. As British Guardian columnist Seumas Milne observed in a January 29 article: “On 9 October 1967, Che Guevara faced a shaking sergeant Mario Teran, ordered to murder him by the Bolivian president and CIA, and declared: “Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man.” The climax of Stephen Soderbergh’s two-part epic, Che, in real life this final act of heroic defiance marked the defeat of multiple attempts to spread the Cuban revolution to the rest of Latin America. But 40 years later, the long-retired executioner, now a reviled old man, had his sight restored by Cuban doctors, an operation paid for by revolutionary Venezuela in the radicalised Bolivia of Evo Morales. Teran was treated as part of a programme which has seen 1.4 million free eye operations carried out by Cuban doctors in 33 countries across Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. It is an emblem both of the humanity of Fidel Castro and Guevara’s legacy, but also of the transformation of Latin America which has made such extraordinary co-operation possible.”

In a world facing environmental destruction, wars, famine and disease, we need to look at the mess we’re in and think long and hard about what to do next. If Che serves as an inspiration to read what Che wrote about the world’s problems and how only a revolutionary struggle for socialism can solve them, then it will have honoured its subject. The point, however, is to continue Che’s example of revolutionary struggle outside the comforts of the cinema, because, as his most famous quote states, “If you tremble with indignation at the thought of every injustice, then you are a comrade of mine”.