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.