08 January 2009

Che: Part One (The Argentine)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Peter Buchman
Full credits at IMDb

Ordinarily, a movie that’s named after someone tends to be about that person. Well, Steven Soderbergh bucks that trend. Che Guevara (Benicio del Toro) appears in nearly every scene in Che: Part One, but he is more an omnipresent face than a character—an abstraction, an icon from a t-shirt more than a man. We know he’s a Marxist, a soldier and a doctor because we see him act out all three, from firing guns and treating wounds to delivering socialist speeches. But isn’t a man more than the sum of his occupation and ideology?

The Argentine opens in Mexico City, with dorm room-style bull sessions between Che, Fidel and the whole guerilla gang about the disparity of wealth and power in Cuba. It quickly moves into that country’s sun-bathed jungles—Soderbergh himself provides the gorgeous cinematography under his standard cinematographer pseudonym “Peter Andrews”—from the early army-forming stages to Batista’s abdication and the triumphant march into Havana. In between, Soderbergh cuts between firefights, political argument and discussions of military and political strategy. He includes scenes of post-revolution Che speaking at the U.N. and being interviewed by journalists, so that the requisite political speeches can emerge from the drama organically—if conspicuous artifice can be deemed natural. Shouldn’t a movie about revolutionaries be, well, more revolutionary? More radical in its form?

The filmmakers present Che as a man opposed: angry protestors greet him outside the U.N., political enemies greet him inside; reporters ask him tough questions; he butts heads with Fidel and other comrades. But in these filmmakers’ hands, Guevara never comes across as anything less than a hero, a noble freedom fighter. The Batistas are conspicuously the Bad Guys: they shoot their own men, launch bombs into populous neighborhoods. They represent death; the revolutionaries, life.

But for all of the radical—particularly for an American director—speechifying, the scandalous celebration of the socialist, there aren’t a lot of ideas in Che: Part One. The filmmakers are more interested in process; despite some lip service to Marxist ideals, the film is about how the war was won, not so much by whom, let alone why it was fought. It’s a primer on how to build and conduct a revolution—an exciting war movie and edifying history and civics lessons populated by textbook-torn historical figures. Real moments of humanity are glimpsed only fleetingly. Early on, we learn Che has asthma, which leaves him wheezing in the jungle, helping to establish his vulnerability. And that’s that.

Perhaps process and tactics enthrall Soderbergh because he comes from a country of apathetic and well-behaved citizens who haven’t fought a real revolution in at least several decades. He might mean to encourage his countrymen—and women (Che has a feisty revolutionary sidekick reminiscent of West Side Story’s Anybody)—to learn to take up arms, to be inspired to risk their lives for something they believe in. Then again, the scenes of urban warfare immediately evoke thoughts of the current conflict in Iraq. Maybe he wants to teach us how one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. And how he who wants it more is he who wins the war. Either way, Che is a totally inappropriate title. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:

1 comment:

Clayton L. White said...

This is On Demand right now, and I am thinking about giving it a try. Even though you haven't given the film a glowing review, you bring up enough interesting points to make me go through with spending the twelve bucks to rent both parts.

By the way, is it just me, or should Soderbergh quit his day job as a director and focus more on a career in cinematography. As a director, I can't say that I see much growth in his work, but as a DOP, he just keeps getting better with each passing film.