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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Che (review)

You Say You Want a Revolution?

You’ve seen the T-shirt — now see the movie. That seems to be attitude of the decriers of Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of the Argentinean freedom fighter/terrorist: that the filmmaker does not demonize his subject to the degree the decriers insist is necessary. Or as if Ernesto “Che” Guevara should have foreseen that his mug would end up gracing a million undergraduate chests and a million dorm-room walls, and should have known better than to do what he did, lest his image and his ideals be appropriated by others who may not fully understand what he did… or — worse — by others who may understand full well Che’s actions and legacy and embrace him anyway, to the consternation of their politically disapproving elders.
Here’s the thing: You’re a fool if you let a single movie dictate what you think about a single subject, whether person, place, or thing. In this case, it’s two movies you need to avoid letting make up your entire education: Che Part One: The Argentine and Che Part Two: The Guerilla. (Soderbergh’s epic was meant to be seen in one sitting of almost five hours, including intermission, but only lucky-ducky Cannes attendees, some critics — including me — and moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles for a brief period in December had the opportunity to do that. Now it comes as two separate admissions. Or you can catch it on pay-per-view, though my local cable company has priced each installment at $6.95, which is two bucks more than the usual PPV charge. Bastards.) A movie like this one should be only the beginning, for newcomers, of an exploration into a personality like Che, or just one more piece of the puzzle for those already familiar with him. Insisting that a movie like this should be all things to all people anywhere on the political spectrum is absurd.

That isn’t what the decriers insist, however. They think Che should have been all-damning of its subject, if it had to be made at all.

In a way, Soderbergh’s film — and Benicio Del Toro’s complex, sensitive performance in the title role — is almost most interesting for the furor it has raised, and for the biases how we talk about it reveals. Imagine if the American colonies had been beaten down in their late-18th-century revolt, and two hundred years later someone made a film portraying George Washington in a warm and positive light. There would be outcry from some, approval from others, and somewhere, someone would be saying, “Yeah, but imagine if the colonials had won….” Sometimes truth is a matter of fact. But sometimes truth is a matter of perspective. Whether a man like Guevara is a freedom fighter or a terrorist is very much a matter of where the observer stands, but it doesn’t mean that any of those perspectives are wrong. (They may be, but not automatically so.) We may disagree with those alternative perspectives, but it doesn’t make us any more right than anyone else.

Here’s the other thing: Che exists as a matter of Guevara’s perspective. Soderbergh (Ocean’s Thirteen, Solaris) and Del Toro (Sin City, The Hunted) — this truly is a tour de force performance — puts us so totally into his head that it’s impossible not to sympathize with him. In Part One, it’s all about the Cuban revolution to overthrow Batista, and Guevara’s rise from a doctor assisting rebels to a leader who grasps the intricacies of guerilla warfare. In Part Two, it’s all about Guevara’s second attempt at revolution, in Bolivia, when his fame preceded him and his rebellion was less successful. In both parts, Soderbergh is deliberately minimalist, eschewing almost all exposition and leaving us on our own to determine where we personally may stand… or even that we may stand off to the side, withholding judgment as the film itself does. But, you know: You can let the inexorable Che-ness of it flow over you without having to accede to it, if that’s your wont. If you’re not independent-minded enough to maintain your own opinion about Che in the face of the man’s story from his own point of view — or not intrigued enough to seek out other perspectives on Che if you knew nothing about him previously — then you’ve got bigger things to be worrying about than whether a movie isn’t “balanced” enough.

Here’s my thing: I’m not sure what to make of Ernesto “Che” Guevara the man. I’m not sure whether I think he was right or wrong or somewhere in the middle. I know that much of what he did must be left out of even a four-and-a-half-hour telling of it — I know that Che is not a complete representation. I would never expect it to be. This isn’t Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It’s not intended as simple escapism, and it’s not directed at anyone who’s looking to shut their brain off at the movies. It’s the beginning of a dialogue, not the end of it. It’s a sad commentary on American culture if we genuinely expect it to be.


Watch Che: Part One and Che: Part Two online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.


MPAA: not rated

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

IMDb
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  • Really enjoyed your review. Che is just one of those figures that makes people lose their heads when they talk about him. He’s got to be a hero or a monster, and if you talk about him you have to unequivocally state your position. Like you say, it is daft to assume that five hours of film will produce the definitive portrayal of Che, or even that it needs to.

  • You had no trouble making your mind up about Sir Thomas More based on one movie but you’re philosophically ambiguous in regard to Che Guevara?

    There’s a reason Guevara got his negative reputation and it’s not because he lost. History is full of losers (the Texans at the Alamo, the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Jews at Masada, General Robert E. Lee, etc.) whose reputations ultimately outshone the reputations of their conquerors. Heck, Irish history–which I always thought to be a subject near and dear to you–is full of romanticized “losers.”

    But I suspect this is going to be another one of those “you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to” issues.

  • Heck, Irish history–which I always thought to be a subject near and dear to you–is full of romanticized “losers.”

    And, of course, the reputation of such “losers” ultimately eclipsed the reputations of such British conquerors as–say–Cromwell.

  • Nathan

    As a child in school I was always taught about George Washington’s brutal battles in the French and Indian War and the execution of deserters and the whipping of the drunk and disorderly.

    No, not really. They taught us something about a cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac.

    If you love or hate Che (the person) it is likely due to personal philosophy. If he weren’t lionized by so many, he wouldn’t be an object of scorn for so many. Disagreements about Che are ideological disagreements disguised as disagreements over facts or ethics.

    I merely find him interesting and I am looking forward to the movie(s).

    And, Tonio, there’s a difference for being honored despite having lost and being honored for having lost in service to a greater good or greater justice — or having lost for both a greater good and an ultimate victory which would be the case for the defenders to the Alamo* and Thermopylae.

    * might only apply to Texans depending on you worldview

  • I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than that.

    There’s a lot of people in the South who are still fond of Confederate icons like the Stars and Bars–not as many as you’d think but they exist–but I wouldn’t argue that my disagreement with them in regard to the merits of their Lost Cause is strictly due to personal philosophy.

  • SocialTexture

    If one wouldn’t disagree with Confederates due to differing “personal philosophies” – say, whether one believes slavery to be wrong – then what would the disagreement be based on, anyway? Tactical disagreements, maybe?

    Regardless, it’s a bit of a strange parallel to draw between people who are “fond” of a basically white supremacist movement (the Confederate states) and people who respect Che, who participated in overthrowing a U.S.-backed dictatorship and instigated vast improvements in health care and literacy and reductions in poverty across Cuba, to the point that Cubans now enjoy better infant mortality rates than do Americans.

    (And note that such facts about Cuba remain true despite whatever one thinks about Che and Castro – except for the most dedicated ideological fanatics.)

  • Tonio Kruger

    I’m tempted to reply “touche” on the personal philosophy issue but that would imply my difference of opinion on the slavery issue with most Confederate apologists was just an eccentric personal quirk and not, say, a product of my conscience or principles. Since I doubt you would prefer to see your own obvious dislike of white supremacy described in similiar fashion, it might best be argued that sometimes there is a lot more to some philosophical conflicts than, say, mere quirkiness or ideological stubbornness.

    Besides, I have reasons for my skepticism. I grew up with a Mexican-born father who was very cynical about U.S. involvement in Latin America–but also cynical about Latin American revolutionaries. (It didn’t help that he grew up amongst survivors of the Mexican Revolution.) Moreover, I have a Polish-American mother who had her own issues with the Left on account of her support of the Polish Solidarity Movement.

    The more I read about Che Guevara, the more I find it difficult to endorse his actions in good conscience. He might have meant well with his actions–but then Latin America history is filled with figures who “meant well” and yet caused plenty of damage.

    And it can be argued that the constant outflow of refugees attempting to flee Castro’s Cuba or for that matter, the treatment of gays under Castro’s rulership speak just as loudly about the true merits of Che’s legacy as the stats you mentioned in your last post. One might even argue that such stats are the modern-day equivalent of “at least so-and-so made the trains run on time.”

    In any event, we recently had the opportunity to see the same approach you advocate taking towards Che taken towards yet another historical figure. And of course, no one on this forum was interested in such an approach because it was easier to go with the old “so-and-so is evil” approach than to risk losing one’s political bona fides with a more nuanced approach.

    Frankly, I wasn’t a big fan of the historical figure in question. But if Margaret Thatcher isn’t deserving of the nuanced approach MaryAnn and Peter Young advocate, then neither is Che Guevara.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I honor the defenders of the Alamo because it was a classic case of the few fighting against the many. But I don’t care so much for the way that battle has been used as a weapon against Texans of Mexican descent and it disturbs me that so many people who mention that battle seem to forget that many Texans of Mexican descent fought against Santa Ana as well.

    However, all this is an issue that is best discussed on another day.

  • SocialTexture

    It’s nice to read a serious response on the Internet – thank you. So often it seems that political conversations online either devolve into personal attacks, ideological fanaticism or, perhaps worse, “tl;dr”. That said, I think it would be easiest to respond to each of your comments in sequence.

    >>You first said: “I’m tempted to reply “touche” on the personal philosophy issue but that would imply my difference of opinion on the slavery issue with most Confederate apologists was just an eccentric personal quirk and not, say, a product of my conscience or principles. Since I doubt you would prefer to see your own obvious dislike of white supremacy described in similiar fashion, it might best be argued that sometimes there is a lot more to some philosophical conflicts than, say, mere quirkiness or ideological stubbornness.”

    Honestly, I’m a bit confused by what you’re trying to say here, but if I’m reading it correctly it seems that we share a rejection of slavery and white supremacy as a matter of principle. Good common ground to share… :)

    >>Then you turn to Che and Cuba: “Besides, I have reasons for my skepticism. I grew up with a Mexican-born father who was very cynical about U.S. involvement in Latin America–but also cynical about Latin American revolutionaries. (It didn’t help that he grew up amongst survivors of the Mexican Revolution.) Moreover, I have a Polish-American mother who had her own issues with the Left on account of her support of the Polish Solidarity Movement.”

    There is much reason to be cynical about US (and Canadian, Israeli, British and other) involvement in Latin America. It only takes having one’s eyes open to see the horrors committed against Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil, Guatemala, Panama, Chile (“the first 9/11 – in 1973”), Argentina and on and on. Or, having one’s ears cleaned helps, too. For instance, John Kerry just referred to Latin America as the “the backyard” of the US, recalling Kissinger’s usage, and everyone knows that you can do whatever you want in your own backyard — the point being that the US sees Latin America (and the world, really) as its own playground, a place to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it pleases, at whatever the cost. Fortunately, Latin America has been slowly but effectively freeing itself from its 500 years of servitude over the last few decades. Quite heartening to see.

    Otherwise, I can’t really comment on the Polish Solidarity Movement or the Mexican Revolution, knowing very little about either. All I can say is that it’s worth being cautious about drawing conclusions about the entirety of “the Left” based on a few people’s experience of particular movements, although they are surely instructive in many ways. Nothing ever wrong with a healthy bit of skepticism, though.

    >>About Che you say: “The more I read about Che Guevara, the more I find it difficult to endorse his actions in good conscience. He might have meant well with his actions–but then Latin America history is filled with figures who “meant well” and yet caused plenty of damage.”

    I’d be curious to know who you’ve read, as scholarship and commentary on Che (and Cuba in general) is often grossly distorted by pro-US and pro-business ideological biases. (That is, the facts may be right, but the framing represents particular values – capitalism is awesome, the US is a benign actor, and so on and so forth…) I find it quite hard to find anything reliable on the topic, really.

    Perhaps you could clarify which of Che’s actions you find difficult to endorse, specifically? And I should point out I’m not trying to defend everything he did or everything that’s ever happened in Cuba. That would be ridiculous. I’m just curious, really.

    >>You continue: “And it can be argued that the constant outflow of refugees attempting to flee Castro’s Cuba or for that matter, the treatment of gays under Castro’s rulership speak just as loudly about the true merits of Che’s legacy as the stats you mentioned in your last post. One might even argue that such stats are the modern-day equivalent of “at least so-and-so made the trains run on time.””

    Sure, it could be argued, but that would be a tough argument to make, frankly. Che died 45 years ago; he left a legacy, surely, but are we to attribute to him the blame for Cuba’s treatment of gays today so many years later — especially considering that he only held official positions in Cuba for something like 5 years? Is the Che of the early 1960s (i.e., before the gay rights movement emerged) somehow responsible for Castro’s decisions nearly 50 years later (i.e., well after the gay rights movement emerged)? That just doesn’t make any sense.

    And, really, the premise is dubious at best. Cuba is a signatory of the UN LGBT rights bill, unlike over 50 other nations (including US opposition, initially), and has proposed the legalization of same-sex marriages – sadly, a rarity in Latin America, as in much of the rest of the world. At a glance, it doesn’t seem like Cuba’s current or past treatment of LGBT folks is really that much different from the rest of the region (not, of course, that that makes *any* violation of LGBT rights ok).

    Yet “Cuba’s treatment of gays”–ignoring nearly *every* country’s treatment of gays, *including* the US–is commonly trotted out as part of the ongoing propaganda war against that country. And, conspicuously, this is often done by the very same people who have never had a single word to say about the vastly worse treatment of gays in, say, Saudi Arabia, by any measure. I think that speaks for itself. Condemning a valued ally is far harder than screaming about an enemy; one doesn’t even have to provide any evidence to justify one’s screaming in the latter case.

    >>Finally, you say: “In any event, we recently had the opportunity to see the same approach you advocate taking towards Che taken towards yet another historical figure. And of course, no one on this forum was interested in such an approach because it was easier to go with the old “so-and-so is evil” approach than to risk losing one’s political bona fides with a more nuanced approach.

    Frankly, I wasn’t a big fan of the historical figure in question. But if Margaret Thatcher isn’t deserving of the nuanced approach MaryAnn and Peter Young advocate, then neither is Che Guevara.”

    This is misleading, really. What “approach” did I “advocate taking towards Che”? I didn’t specifically “advocate” any “approach” – I merely pointed out a few of the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, in stark contrast to the slavery and white supremacy *clearly* advocated by the Confederates whom you were drawing an analogy to Che to, for some reason.

    Anyway, when it comes to Thatcher – yeah, sure, plenty of people take a “nuanced” approach to her legacy. But “nuance” typically means heaping praise upon her grand and noble accomplishments (always vague – “saving the economy” and “rebuilding Britain” kind of stuff) and ruminating on her toughness while systematically ignoring (or worse, justifying) her crushing of labour unions, destruction of the economy and social programs for the bottom 80% of the population, vast increases in poverty and inequality, enthusiastic participation in war crimes, and so on.

    Because, you know, it wouldn’t be “nuanced” to talk about such ugly things when someone has passed away; far better to focus on her good qualities.

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