If only every movie had the director delivering his DVD commentary once the house lights come up.
The “Che” roadshow arrived in Portland with Steven Soderbergh in attendance. And after 257 minutes split by just a single quarter-hour intermission, an honest and affable Soderbergh, looking sharp in a black leather jacket, black jeans with Chelsea boots and resembling a Joe Jackson inspiration, offered a glimpse into the filmmaking saga of “Che” and the massive obstacles even an Academy Award winning director with an Oscar winning leading man faces in getting a project greenlighted. At ease, sitting on the edge of the Cinema 21 stage, he was engaging and frank as he recounted a “brutal” shoot which was the most difficult of his career.
The genesis of the project goes as far back as “Traffic.“ Eight years from conception to screen, “Che” was first developed with Soderbergh at the helm, then Terrence Malick, who alighted to the New World after several years work, and finally back to Soderbergh, who shot the two halves consecutively in the summer of 2007. He admitted that once they decided to make the film in the Spanish language, there’d be no money from the U.S. So they relied on European sources. He mused that perhaps they should have made “Che” as a multi-episode miniseries for HBO; the cable network would have provided a bigger budget. Cutting edge digital cameras arrived with just days to spare and still needed tweaking as the production commenced.
Besides the logistical obstacles, it must have been a daunting task deciding how to transfer a biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara to the screen. Plunked on a pedestal of mythology, the divisive Che was a solider and an academic, a revolutionary with the word and a weapon. But he‘s morphed into the Marxist as marketing tool. He’s a T-shirt icon with a Chris Cornell-like Rock God vibe. Upon the release of “The Motorcycle Diaries,“ Larry Rohter penned a May 2004 New York Times article titled “Che Today? More Easy Rider Than Revolutionary,” which examined Che‘s dichotomous cultural legacy. Jon Lee Anderson, the author of the seminal work, “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” and a chief consultant on Soderbergh‘s film, described Che as “a figure who can constantly be examined and re-examined. To the younger, post-cold-war generation of Latin Americans, Che stands up as the perennial Icarus, a self-immolating figure who represents the romantic tragedy of youth. Their Che is not just a potent figure of protest but the idealistic, questioning kid who exists in every society and every time.” But Mario O’Donnell, a biographer of Guevara as well, noted in the same article that these types of allusions to Greek mythology could reduce Che to a deified stereotype. “The Cubans have excluded everything about Che that is not heroic, including that which is most deliciously human about him. The personal doubts, the sexual escapades, the moments when he and [his traveling motorcycling companion Alberto] Granado are drunk, none of that fits with the immortal warrior they want to project.”
It is this warrior that Soderbergh focuses on. Part One of “Che” is stellar biographical storytelling. It intercuts expeditiously between Guevara‘s first meetings in 1955 with Fidel Castro in Mexico City to the rebel surge across Cuba in the late 1950’s and his defiant appearance in December 1964 before the United Nations. “Che” moves quickly but precisely, steadied by a filmmaker never dawdling but patiently laying out the intertwining elements. It’s methodical and engrossing. The interspersed storylines crafted by screenwriter Peter Buchman make sense and there‘s a keen understanding of Che‘s revolutionary ethos. The story was ably assisted by a quietly clever device at the beginning of the film. Soderbergh opens with a slowly exposed map of Cuba, with regions and cities clearly illuminated in succession as a respectful way to familiarize the audience with the locale and points of interest.
The second part of “Che” centers exclusively on his 1967 quest to foment revolution in Bolivia. Filmed with harsh white sunlight hue and a purposefully muted color palette, Soderbergh said that this part has a purposeful “jagged” feel. The appearance in Part Two of commendable performances from easily recognizable actors — Lou Diamond Phillips, Franka Potente and Matt Damon — doesn’t mean there’s a Hollywood gloss on this portion of the film. It’s a decidedly grittier film than its predecessor. Utilizing the Red One digital camera — a camera that not only afforded Soderbergh more maneuverability but meant that only six shots in the entire film used artificial light — Soderbergh captures a barren landscape of both geographic and political isolation. Where Che was feted as a liberating hero by village after village in Cuba, in Bolivia, he is met by local indifference (and an American presence). His revolution was vaguely organized, with less money and, most crucially, scant indigenous support. So, in Bolivia, where locals seemed hesitant, Che feels like a Marxist imperialist, exporting revolution to folks who aren’t clamoring for it. He comes across as a bit of a policy wonk as well (and this section also highlights that there’s barely an acknowledgement of a personal life in either film).
While imposing, imperious and full blooded, Benicio del Toro doesn’t overwhelm the films in the title role. He is compelling without becoming overpowering. Yet, his Guevara is indefatigable. This unceasing desire mimics the uncompromising arrogance of a demagogue. In his August 1960 speech, “On Revolutionary Medicine,” Che rallied the Cuban Militia with his oft-repeated theme of the Cuban revolution forging a “new man.”
“Then I realized a fundamental thing: For one to be a revolutionary doctor or to be a revolutionary at all, there must first be a revolution. Isolated individual endeavor, for all its purity of ideals, is of no use, and the desire to sacrifice an entire lifetime to the nobles of ideals serves no purpose if one works along, solitarily, in some corner of America, fighting against adverse governments and social conditions which prevent progress. To create a revolution, one must have what there is in Cuba — the mobilization of a whole people, who learn by the use of arms and exercise of militant unity to understand the value of arms and the value of unity.”
He underscores this belief in the subjugation of the individual impulse with a veiled sense that his means to a revolutionary end are something more menacing than a recommendation — indeed, a threat to civil liberties.
“Individualism, in the form of the individual action of a person alone in a social milieu, must disappear in Cuba. In the future individualism ought to be the efficient utilization of the whole individual for the absolute benefit of a collective. It is not enough that this idea is understood today, that you all comprehend the things I am saying and are ready to think a little about the present and the past and what the future out to be. In order to change a way of thinking, it is necessary to undergo profound internal changes and to witness profound external changes, especially in the performance of our duties and obligations to society.”
The Che of this speech is the Che of this epic film; unflinching, charismatic, and persuasive but peremptory; unfailingly dressed in fatigues, draped in ambivalent heroism. Soderbergh described the making of the films as “kind of like a slow motion car accident.” In Che, he’s got one hell of a back seat driver