Saturday, January 2, 2010

#496: Che

(Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

Tragically underexposed upon release, Che is a brilliant and impeccably produced portrait of the legend of a revolutionary. Criterion has done us all a great service by helping to bring an near-masterpiece by one of the most challenging and exciting American filmmakers.

I was a bit surprised by the scope of the film. The first two hours are entirely about Che's experiences in the Cuban revolution. The majority of the film takes place during the campaign to take Havana, which took three or four years, while this is framed by an interview with a journalist afterwards and Che's visit to the United Nations in 1964. The second two hours fast forward to Che's campaign in Bolivia, after he has left Cuba and gone briefly to the Congo. The revolution would fail, and Che was captured and executed about a year after arriving there.

The first part is exhilarating, a quietly confident and loyal telling of the taking of Cuba, and some of the best filmmaking of the decade. The second half is still excellent, though it loses some of its impact (and narrative complexity). The process by which the movement falls apart is interesting, though it's better told in books, like the excellent A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson (who is going to have a commentary on the film's DVD release, I watched this on Netflix). What carries you through the second half, though, and prevents it from being an exercise in reenacting history, is Benicio Del Toro's performance, which is infused with life and rejects any easy categorization of Che. Surely he deserved an Oscar for this performance, but even fifty years later the controversy that surrounds Che prevents legitimate civil discourse (and OK, most people don't want to sit through a four hour movie).

What makes the film especially great was the decision to focus entirely on Che's mythmaking time, his moments as the revolutionary as seen on the t-shirt. By sticking so well to the actual history of the battles, the film can quite easily be anything you want it to be - a rejection or confirmation of those myths.

I might mention that I've never been a huge Che fan myself (for mid-century Communists, I like Ho Chi Minh), and watching the film what kept coming up again and again for me was the image of the average Jihadist. Che, too, came from a wealthy background (he studied to be a doctor), and got caught up in his region's dominant radical ideology, one that stood in defiance to the US, which had spent decades illegally meddling in the affairs of sovereign nations. Besides an undeniable belief in social justice, what separates Che from the bomber that tried to blow up a plane on Christmas day is a refusal to murder innocents. But certainly they both seem less like true revolutionaries and more like adolescents playing dress up, going off to fight someone else's war in order to give their life a purpose.

On the other hand, Che believed in something, and that something wasn't killing innocent people or marginalizing women or converting infidels. It was helping people who were less fortunate than him, giving his life for Latin America and its people, whom he viewed as his people. He helped bring down a puppet dictator that was slowly destroying his people (though put in place a nearly equally flawed leader). He spent the rest of his short life going to places he saw injustice and trying to help people train and learn to become freedom fighters. In a grey world without right and wrong, Che might seem like just another radical preaching instability and suffering, but if you believe that there is a difference between helping people and hurting people, and that difference is worth killing and dying over, then it doesn't seem so ridiculous to view Che as the hero he still is in many parts of the world.

Personally, I think there's a middle ground here, and it's rooted in history. Che wasn't all good or all bad, but instead a product of his time, when Communism and armed uprising seemed the best alternative to the status quo, which was undoubtedly the dominance of the US and their interest in his homeland. With these alternatives, Che seems like a clear-viewed idealist who refused to compromise, a powerful figure in a region starved for successful leadership, and far too often is forced to settle for flawed, immortal martyrs.

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