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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: Che

At its heart, Steven Soderbergh’s epic biopic Che is less an historically accurate account of the life of the Man Who Would be a Revolutionary, and more a case study in the hubris that led Che Guevara (Benecio del Toro, in a great performance) to cling to the mantle of revolutionary hero long after he had ceased to be one. In the first half of the film, formerly titled “The Argentine,” Soderbergh follows Che to the jungle where he, alongside then-rebel and eventual Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is leading a pack of bedraggled rebels fighting to overthrow the Cuban government. There are bloody battle sequences, moments of bleak despair and loss of hope, betrayal and love, all thrown together into a glorious cacophony of the gritty, dark reality of revolutionary war; it’s not pretty — war never is — but Soderbergh gives us a sense of the passion and purpose that drove Castro, Che and their pack of tattered revolutionaries to victory in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds.
The second, darker half of the film, formerly called “Guerrilla,” picks up some six years after the victorious final battle, shortly after Che, grown weary of his post-revolutionary duties and butting heads with Castro and the Soviet Union over his Maoist politics and the Bay of Pigs fiasco, delivered what would be his last public speech — wherein he publicly criticized the Soviet Union, Cuba’s key source of financial support –in Algiers. Guevara returned to Cuba briefly after Algiers, then disappeared two weeks later; by October of that year, Castro released an undated resignation letter (intended by Guevara to be released only after his death), in which Guevara pledged his continued support of the Cuban Revolution, but announced his intention to continue to fight for revolution elsewhere. Guevara was seen and heard from again only in vague rumors of his whereabouts until 1967, when he was caught and executed in Bolivia (ostensibly with the assistance of the CIA), where he had been working to help stage a Cuba-style revolution in yet another country that was not his own.

For whatever reasons, Soderbergh has chosen not to show most of what happened between the final victory over Batista and Che disappearing into the Congo, and then Bolivia, and by choosing to largely skip over those intervening years when Guevara oversaw the executions of hundreds of Batista supporters and others Castro considered a threat to his fledgling government, he opened himself up to criticism from some quarters for not showing the full picture of who Guevara was. Artistically, then, the first half of the unified film now called Che is — regardless of your politics — an often thrilling, well-dramatized account of a revolution from the inside out; the second half is slower in pace and very much bleaker, while missing a good deal of context in the narrative arc of Che Guevara’s later life. Personally, I would have preferred to see Soderbergh use the first half or so of Guerrilla to show us Che in those years he skips over: the conflicts with Castro and Castro’s growing sense of unease over both Che’s outspoken clash with the Soviets and Che’s popularity with the people, which threatened to usurp his own; Che’s speech at Algiers and uncomfortable homecoming; the Bay of Pigs crisis, after which Guevara sent John F. Kennedy a note thanking him for making the revolution stronger than ever.
Instead, we see only the most fractional glimpse of Che during this pivotal time in his life; if you’ve never studied the history of Guevara’s life, you might have the impression that not a lot happened during those crucial years, that Che was just sitting around the house with the wife and kids, getting bored by household tasks like mowing the lawn and grouting the bathroom tiles, and that he ultimately left again because he was bored with post-revolutionary life. From an artistic standpoint, I can understand Soderbergh wanting to show his audience the duel images of Che the Revolutionary: the first half shows us the young, passionate, charismatic leader who earned Castro’s trust and helped lead a successful revolution, while the second shows us the older, disillusioned Che, still fighting wars that aren’t his, still trying to change the world, but running against obstacle after obstacle until ultimately, he’s captured and executed without a trial. But without showing us any of those intervening years between the two sides of Che that he shows us, Soderbergh misses the opportunity to draw a fuller arc of who Guevara was, and skips over some of the more dramatic interpersonal conflicts that led him to leave Cuba and go to Bolivia in the first place.
Regardless of his motivations, the end result is that Che as a movie feels rather than a unified whole, more like two halves of a story, with a narrow bridge connecting the two; the resulting narrative arc takes us from the thrilling excitement of revolutionary battles in the jungle, to victory over Batista, then goes pretty much straight into Guevara’s futile attempts to revolutionize Bolivia. Setting the arc in this way presents Che as battling more with his own hubris and need to be in the thick of battles, rather than Che and Castro engaged in a battle of egos, political philosophies and and practicalities, with Che’s ongoing denigration of the Soviets and support of Maoism being at least as important in driving him out of Cuba in his quest to revolutionize the world and unite Latin America as one Communist country without borders.
Soderbergh shot both films in high-resolution digital, but they look as visually stunning as if they were shot on film. The battle scenes give us a verite sense of being in the thick of bullets flying, and we can feel the passion with which Guevara and Castro rallied their revolutionaries to battle. The final sequence leading up to the victory of Castro’s 26th of July Movement over the Batista regime in Santa Clara is dramatically tense and tautly shot, as the rebels turn what looks like a no-win situation into victory. The battle scenes in the second half are equally well-shot, but the tone feels considerably bleaker as Soderbergh follows the downward spiral of Guevara’s final months.
In spite of the omission of those crucial middle years in Guevara’s life, Soderbergh excels at giving the audience a sense, also, of the passion that drove Che Guevara — an Argentine physician and son of privilege — to fight for the working poor and peasentry in a country that wasn’t his own. I knew well before I saw Che at Cannes back in May that this film would divide critics not only on its artistic merits, but on its perceived philosophical and political sympathies, and that’s very often proved to be the case in discussions I’ve had about the film with my critical colleagues. And while I can’t say with certainty where Soderbergh’s sympathies lie, I can say with certainty that, while he’s obviously made a choice to scalpel out a key part (some might say, the most malignant part) of the story of who Che Guevara was, he’s nonetheless made exactly the film he wanted to make: a big, sweeping, dramatic retelling of the overall story of who Che was at these particular points in his life and what drove him, not a dry history lesson on the Cuban Revolution. Whether you think Che was a brilliant revolutionary or a brutal, egomaniacal monster, you can’t help but admire the scope and accomplishment of Che, the movie, as an amazing piece of filmmaking.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon