One-Ton Guerrilla

Soderbergh's two Che Guevara films in one four-hour sitting.

Editor's note: Just after we went to press, we learned that this movie's release date had changed to January 16.

And so the endless campaign wraps up with a flurry of virtual leaders. Richard Nixon will always be part of America's dreamlife, with or without David Frost; the Bush II legacy will linger for years, even as W. addresses a yearning for closure. Like our president-elect, Milk arrives from left field, right on time. But why Che Guevara, and why now? Who in 2009 could possibly be interested in a four-hour movie on the minutiae of guerrilla warfare?

The Motorcycle Diaries and 20th Century Fox' long-ago debacle, Che!, were made to capitalize on the Guevara myth: Each, in its way, served to infuriate either Che's enemies or his fans. By contrast, Steven Soderbergh's Che is neither romantic nor even particularly partisan. While the real Che may be (or may once have been) cool, the filmmaker's attitude is way cooler. Whatever heat star and co-producer Benicio Del Toro brings to the title role, Soderbergh's project is to search for the technocrat, which is to say, himself, in the original revolutionary rock star.

Throughout Che, the emphasis is on process. Moreover, the movie presents its subject almost entirely in the context of three events — the Cuban revolution, the Bolivian debacle, and a 1964 trip to the United Nations. There were some at the Cannes Film Festival last May who accused Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman of evading the facts: Where was Che's bureaucratic bungling and his persecution of political enemies? What about his love affairs? His adventures in the Congo? Why, others wanted to know, did Soderbergh withhold the ecstatic entrance into Havana? Everything must be deduced from Che's behavior under actual or rhetorical fire — he is defined in terms of his desire and capacity to make history.

Seeing Che at Cannes, I thought it perhaps a great movie and certainly an admirably uncommercial one. Upon a second viewing some months later, after Soderbergh normalized Che (mainly by tweaking the first half to soften its strangeness), his movie seemed disappointingly less formally rigorous — but even more scrupulous in its pursuit of an objective narrative. The filmmaker wanted to make history as well.

The man who put U.S. indies (and the old Miramax) on the map when his first film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, took the “audience award” at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival and the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Soderbergh has enjoyed the indie-est career of any contemporary American filmmaker — whimsically alternating between big-budget crowd-pleasers and pretentious, scruffy experiments. Traffic came closest to reconciling these modes, but Che does as well. The movie's first part has a classic Hollywood look, while the second is more rough-and-ready cinema vérité. In interviews, Soderbergh has emphasized his use of a new lightweight, high-performance digital cinecamera to shoot Che, setting up, as critic Amy Taubin noted in Film Comment, an underlying equation between guerrilla warfare and guerrilla filmmaking.

Does this trivialize the movie's subject? Only to the degree that making art is making a lesser form of history. Che gives full rein to a quixotic strain of Soderbergh's work — the desire to use Franz Kafka as a fictional character, remake Tarkovsky's Solaris, or, as in The Good German, create a '40s movie in the 21st century. Ocean's 11 is both a caper movie and a successfully pulled caper; Solaris is a movie about the imperfection of simulated memory that is also such a memory.

If Che seems self-reflexive, it's because Soderbergh is less the driven auteur than a highly intelligent artisan who sets himself a problem and goes about solving it. Assuming responsibility for this ambitious, risk-taking, possibly pointless project gave him a way to identify with his impossibly legendary subject.

Fifty years later, the Cuban revolution has not yet disappeared as a political issue and, in some respects, remains more contemporary than the Third World guerrilla struggles it inspired. Still, Soderbergh's strategy demands that the viewer project a measure of pathos into Che — or at least an appreciation for the painful failure dramatized on screen.

Diffident or objective — which characterizes Soderbergh's attitude, and what are his didactic ends? Che might be described as an anti-biopic that nevertheless seeks to humanize its subject (that is, the history that its subject made or failed to make) with a shocking absence of human interest.

This sets up an intriguing dialectic, but whatever Soderbergh's intentions, Che is most definitely not a movie in the hyperdramatizing tradition of D.W. Griffith or Steven Spielberg (or, for that matter, Milk). History is not personalized. As a filmmaker, Soderbergh is closer to Otto Preminger in his observational use of the moving camera, or to Roberto Rossellini, whose serenely understated period documentaries — Socrates or The Age of Medici — presented historical facts as though they were commonplace.

At its best, Che is both action film and ongoing argument. Each new camera setup seeks to introduce a specific idea — about Che or his situation — and every choreographed battle sequence is a sort of algorithm where the camera attempts to inscribe the event that is being enacted. For Che's first half, editing is crucial. Moving on two tracks back and forth in time, Part One demands an unusually active viewer. Part Two, a grim tale straightforwardly told, only requires you keep Part One playing in your head.

Still, every Bolivian sequence has its Cuban parallel, which is why Che's two parts are best seen together. Part Two may be the more realized of the two — and could certainly stand on its own — but it is only comprehensible in the light of Part One. Elevating Part Two to tragedy, Part One puts some hope in hopelessness — and even in history.

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