Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Part One: The Argentine written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen
Part Two: Guerrilla written by Peter Buchman
Silence is argument carried out by other means.
There is a silent fragment of a scene in Guerrilla, the second part of Steven Soderbergh’s epic cinematic experience, Che that is very telling. Che Guevara, portrayed brilliantly by Benicio Del Toro, is trying to motivate a group of reluctant Bolivian peasants to join him in overthrowing their own government, but most of them are not buying it. Mario Monje, portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips, one of only a handful of recognizable actors in this film, has also heard enough politics and leaves. Someone suggests that maybe democracy could work. Silence. In this group is a dead ringer for a young Evo Morales, the indigenous President of Bolivia, who recently won a recall election with 67.4% of the vote.
This is one of the few political messages that Soderbergh leaves even a trace of his own fingerprints on.
Last October, Che’s death was marked, in the Bolivian village where he was killed, by President Morales proclaiming his own political movement to be “100% Guevarist and socialist.”
The CIA may have killed the man, but his ideas have lived on, especially in South America today.
I attended Che-stock (4 ½ hours in length) at its Los Angeles premiere Saturday night at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Red carpet, bright lights, flashing cameras, movie stars – the works. After a short speech by the president of the AFI, Steven Soderbergh spoke to the audience humorously about his non-Che-like ride to the theatre in an Audi (one of the sponsors for the festival). Benicio Del Toro (Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) then spoke briefly and thanked many others, including producer Laura Bickford.
The first part of Che, entitled "The Argentine," is sharp, energetic, visceral and historic. It covers the meeting of the Argentinean doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara with Fidel Castro as well as, many of the battle scenes and training that provided the framework for the Cuban revolution from 1956-1959 ending with the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista.
These detailed military actions have very rarely been depicted in dramatic cinema. Here for the first time we see through Soderbergh’s cinéma vérité style what it would have been like for the Fidelistas to liberate village after village while gathering the support they needed to take their revolution into Havana. In December of 1958, we see Che leading his “suicide squad” in the attack on Santa Clara.
This is not a straightforward biopic of the man who inspired 100 million t-shirts. Rather it is a documentary-style recreation of segments of his life. There are no expositional scenes about his childhood. There are no motivational speeches from a teacher of Che. There are no “white light” experiences where Che sees his life’s work ahead of him. There is none of that. Yet, what we have seems so real you have to look carefully to see if stock footage is being utilized by the director. I only recall tiny snippets.
The recreations of Che’s visit to New York in 1964 and speaking at the United Nations seem so real as to be actual documentary footage. But again, it is not. Soderbergh shoots in front of the U.N. and in either the actual General Assembly chambers or an amazing look-alike set.
Touched on in a brief film recreation are a bomb attempt of the U.N. (which I knew about) and the firing of a mortar across the East River from Roosevelt Island it seems (which I didn’t know about).
Soderbergh has told the media that he made the film(s) because he was fascinated in the process of guerrilla warfare itself. Indeed much of the narrative involves the nuts and bolts of how to fight an insurgent war. Is it possible he wants the film to serve as a How To Overthrow Your Government guide? Hmmm.
The fascinating former actress Lisa Howard is portrayed by Julia Ormond as Che’s interviewer although she is never really seen. Her voice is one of the only English speaking parts you will hear in this subtitled work. Bring your reading glasses. While there are no other “name” actors in both films (Matt Damon has a brief cameo as a German priest in Guerrilla) Soderbergh seems to relish adding to the naughty nepotism of the arts. Featured in cameo roles in The Argentine are Stephen Mailer (son of Norman), Io Bottoms, (daughter of Sam) and Sam Robards (son of Jason).
Part two of Che, entitled Guerrilla, is a complete debacle. Che and his band of Cuban and Bolivian guerrillas are trapped in the mountains of Bolivia the entire film. There are few victories, little success and nothing significant that happens other than Guevara’s ultimate killing at the end of the film. There is no love story. No character analysis. No real action to speak of. As a counterpoint to the first film this is a depressing pill to swallow. Based on Che’s, The Bolivian Diary, Soderbergh seems intent on counting every day Che spent in those mountains. In fact, when “Day 260” appeared on the screen around the four-hour mark I felt I was missing events in the outside world I should be involved in.
The final segments of his life are dramatically portrayed. Wounded, bound and waiting for death in a shack, Che bums a smoke off a captor and asks to be untied from his ropes. I could not help but think just how much Del Toro, with his long black hair and shaggy beard reminded me of Iraq strongman Saddam Hussein just before he was hung in that macabre Shiite necktie ceremony shot on cell phone video. I didn’t want to think about that image but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I felt sorry for Saddam, as I felt sorry for Che, waiting patiently for his execution.
A young soldier volunteers to execute Che. He is told to shoot below the neck for reasons some have suggested were intended to preserve his face for photos. It has been reported that in his final words Che said: “I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”
In the end, Soderbergh does not use that exact quote, but the scene is nonetheless quite chilling. Just before his execution, what is referred to as “Order 600,” there is a visit from a Cuban military man who Che refers to as a traitor. The man, Alejandro Ramirez claims Che had his uncle executed in post-revolution Havana. Che does not deny this, saying simply: “I do not talk to traitors.”
For the record, unmentioned by Soderbergh, Ramirez is portraying the legendary Cuban CIA operative Felix Rodriguez who was assigned the task of tracking down the revolutionary leader and seeing to his death. Rodriguez, whose family fled to Miami, eventually became involved in the Bay of Pigs and Brigade 2506.
During the Iran-Contra affair, Rodriguez was in daily contact with Vice President George H.W. Bush’s office on a daily basis. He worked closely with Ollie North and met with Bush personally in 1985 and 1986.
But that’s another movie yet to be made. Che, while not exactly Lawrence of Arabia is far from being a t-shirt with a symbolic face silk-screened on it.
CIA analysis of Che’s part in Cuban revolution can be viewed here.
Internal White House memo advising President Johnson on the death of Che.
Slated to be released to theatres in January as two separate films, the revolution will indeed be televised. Soderbergh has also made a pay-TV deal to show Che to Americans on demand in their living rooms. How fitting.
Now that, my friends. will be Must See TV!
A screenwriter/producer/journalist based in Hollywood, California, Mark Groubert is the Senior Film and Book Reviewer for CrooksandLiars.com. As a filmmaker he has produced numerous documentaries for HBO. Groubert is also the former editor of National Lampoon Magazine, MTV Magazine and The Weekly World News. In addition, he writes for the L.A. Weekly, L.A. City Beat, Penthouse, High Times and other publications.