Che: Part One/Part Two (2008)

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 a niche with 1999’s The Limey, a cryptic and stylish but finally featherweight film 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 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, is the trait of a craftsman, not a radical. 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. l

  • Shane spoke:
    25th/05/2010 to 2:33 pm

    Once again we seem to be traveling in each others ruts, I watched this yesterday in total. Yes as a child of the 60′s who had to be restrained from joining my friends harvesting sugar cane for “the Cause” I found this more of a travelogue than inspirational revelation. With occasional only shooting, especially in the second part, and many more than necessary shots of revolutionaries dying of boredom, I question where Soderbergh was really heading with this shotgun spray approach. No real delving into his other campaigns, being mentioned only as a snide remark by his captors, nor any of his supposed trysts with camp-following idolizers hinted at through “Tania”. This seemed to be more of a “10-day trip” through “Cheland”. Not to sound too 60ish but he deserved better.

  • Rod spoke:
    25th/05/2010 to 9:58 pm

    People who watch recent movies are apt to see them in relatively close proximity, Shan-e-o!

    As said above, it’s based specifically on Che’s writings, so if he was censoring himself, that’s his problem. But as I’ve argued, the limits to Soderbergh’s conceptualism are just too obvious to ignore, even if it wrings out as much as it can from what he’s got. It’s a film that tries, not always to good purpose, to avoid sentimentalism, slickness, and radical chic self-satisfaction, and I’ve got to admire it for that, even if the need to portray a long slow slide through a long slow slide is finally weak artistry.

  • Jake Riley spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 3:32 am

    This film has been on my Netflix queue for a while now, always have a fan of Soderbergh and Del Toro so I think am still going to give this shot.

    Really digging you Blog by the way! Keep up the fight!

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 4:52 am

    Enjoy – it’s definitely a film worth viewing – and gracias. ¡No pasarán!

  • J.D. spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 8:23 am

    I really liked this film a lot – esp. the you-are-there/BATTLE OF ALGIERS approach to the battle scenes, juxtaposed with the almost poetic, Terrence Malick-esque downtime (in Part One). If the first part is all about how to organizes and stage a successful revolution, part two is a horror film, a how-not-to stage a revolution. Everything that worked in Cuba failed miserably in Bolivia.

    Personally, I liked Soderbergh’s dispassionate approach. He sucked out any kind nostalgia we might feel for this iconic figure, stripped all of that down to show a man believed fiercely in his own convictions and was willing to die for them. This approach, I feel, also leaves it up to the viewer to decide for themselves how they feel about Che – hero? villain? a bit of both?

    Anyways, the film worked for me.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 11:12 am

    The probability this was modeled on The Battle of Algiers occurred to me too in watching it. Whilst I agree with the points you praise in it, this as a project badly lacks several things Gillo Pontecorvo wielded in his film: firstly, a properly evoked and explored geopolitical context, and a sense of a dialogue of values. Pontecorvo depicts the opposing sides, their points of view, and gives the Devil his due in the figure of the French colonel. It’s a dialectical film, and also an urgent one: in some ways, Soderbergh’s film feels self-involved and rather alien, which is a long way, I feel, from the desired point. Also, The Battle of Algiers does as much or indeed far more and yet is only half as long.

    Of course, as I’ve said, it’s a film with many worthy qualities and demands respect. But it’s definitely a failure.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 12:43 pm

    This is a colossal failure, and I am definitely in Rod’s camp. I first saw this at the IFC Film Center in Manhattan on the opening weekend of its release with my site colleague Allan Fish, who was visiting for the UK for a few weeks. This is a self-absorbed, banal and repetitious film, and yes, it’s always feel elusive and alien. This may well be an important subject, but the extreme length of the film causes narrative stagnation, that isn’t remotely saved by the striking cinematography, nor the nifty art design.
    Soderbergh has been on quite a dismal streak as of late, and this bloated train wreck of a movie is his biggest failure of them all.
    Great review Rod. It’s nice to know you didn’t swallow the Kool-Aid.

  • J.D. spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 3:14 pm

    Holy crap, Sam. Don’t hold back tell us how you REALLY feel? ; )

    I guess I’m a Soderbergh apologist and dig it for what it is.

    Rod,

    I certainly agree with you that CHE is no where near as good as BATTLE FOR ALGIERS but I can see what Soderbergh was shooting for and I guess it boils down to whether one thinks he was successful or not.

    I do like Soderbergh and his films in general. I thought that THE INFORMANT! was a nice shifting of gears for him and a much-need light-on-its-feet film. I do think that he is one of the better commercial filmmakers out there. He might not have the depth of a Terrence Malick but he does bring a lot to the table and I have enjoyed films like OUT OF SIGHT (still my fave) and TRAFFIC and even more commercial fair like ERIN BROCKOVICH has its merits.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 4:46 pm

    JD – I don’t think anyone is arguing that Soderbergh is a lousy filmmaker who can’t bring it but still keeps getting green lights to make movies. I think people expected perhaps a different career from the one he had, one that was more uncompromising. His turn toward Hollywood seemed strange until people realized that Sundance can be used to get a big-time career started because indie became the flavor of the month in Hollywood.

    In my book, he’s a very talented director. Hell, he pulled (half) an Oscar-worthy performance out of the lazier than Sunday morning Julia Roberts. He’s great with actors. Look at how great Matt Damon was in The Informant!, a far cry from his screen persona from the Bourne franchise. But he is commercial, and therefore, shallow in his choices, as Rod astutely points out.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 9:17 pm

    I…still feel in the middle of all this. I agree with Marilyn that Soderbergh has a good touch with actors, but almost all of his films since he hit big have struck me as sleek and fussy yet poorly organised without dramatic passion or clarity (and I don’t really equate being a commercial director with shallowness necessarily) with his most inarguably good work being that which relaxed and concentrated entirely on style: the Ocean’s films are just as pop-arty as they need to be, infused with a dash of Soderbergh’s film school-flavoured abstraction. But frankly I can barely remember five minutes of both Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich. The Informant! and Che at least partly represent a moving forward in that, as I’ve said, he’s reconciled aspects of himself in them. Sam and I agree on the film’s failings but it seems perhaps a matter of degree: I maintain it’s an interesting and honourable failure. But it does finally confirm Soderbergh’s inability to convincingly enter a protagonist’s head, and a lot of his tricks seem designed to constantly tap-dance around that lack. I find myself thinking back to King of the Hill for the last time he offered a narrative with meat on its bones.

    As I said in my review, this film, and too many other works of modern realism, seem to be trying to ape TV news reporting and the documentary style. Fuck that! Narrative cinema has such a resource of exploratory and explicative devices, for doing precisely what such reportage can’t do, and yet a four-hour movie can’t think of much more to do than try and look like found footage?

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 9:45 pm

    Ha! J.D.!!!

    I know I was rather blunt there, and I’ll admit I kinds feel bad, as I actually like this director for some great stuff earlier on. KING OF THE KILL, KAFKA, THE LIMEY, SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE and OUT OF SIGHT. ERIN BROKOVICH and TRAFFIC did have there moments too. On the other side of the coin are those two OCEANS films, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, CHE and THE INFORMANT. He’s still a young guy, and I’m sure he’ll direct some winners.

  • Rod spoke:
    26th/05/2010 to 11:28 pm

    Did anyone watch “Bubble”? I caught a bit of it on cable. It looked like dolorous pseudo-Dogme screen filler, but I could be wrong.

    It seems, Sam, that you and I actually like very different films from Mr Soderbergh.

  • J.D. spoke:
    27th/05/2010 to 2:03 pm

    Marilyn:

    I’ve always seen Soderbergh as kind of a journeyman auteur who seems to like hopping around all over the place, conforming his style to whatever project/genre he’s currently attached to, which certainly makes him a tad unpredictable. His move towards Hollywood didn’t really bother me all that much as his pre-OUT OF SIGHT output didn’t wow me all that much with the notable exception of KAFKA. I just watched SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE again recently and it feels very dated.

    I do agree with you on the miracle he pulled off with Julia Roberts in ERIN BROCKOVICH – his strength certainly lies in working with actors, alto, he does certainly know his way around the camera as well. But I don’t know exactly how shallow his choices are. In some case (the OCEAN’S films) they are, but then he goes and makes something very uncommercial (CHE, SOLARIS, THE GOOD GERMAN) so he seems to be of the mentality, do one for the studio, and then one for himself.

    Rod:

    You surprise me that you didn’t find OUT OF SIGHT all that memorable. For me, that was Soderbergh’s (and Clooney’s) breakout film and showed that he really had the goods and could deliver and entertaining, engaging film. It’s filled with memorable performances and dialogue (pretty much anything Steve Zahn says) and looks fantastic.

    I don’t see how it’s a problem that Soderbergh doesn’t feel the need to get inside a character’s head. Why can’t one have a more detached view? I guess that’s not too commercial or maybe accessible but still a valid approach. Look at the icy detachment of Kubrick or the philosophical musings of Malick, for example.

    Sam:

    Thanks for clarifying. You scared me there for a moment. heh.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/05/2010 to 10:39 pm

    Malick and Kubrick in their specific and peculiar ways had/have very keen methods for situating their characters in very carefully evoked milieus that made their character at one with their worlds – Barry Lyndon moving from the wilderness of Ireland into the formalist human chess of Bade-Baden, for example, and Malick’s voice-overs that both explicate the thought processes of his characters but also ironically distance them from the events that are befalling them. Soderbergh has found no so such concision.

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