starring Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir, Santiago Cabrera, Vladimir Cruz
screenplay by Peter Buchman, based on the memoir Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto "Che" Guevara
directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna
screenplay by Dustin Lance Black
directed by Gus Van Sant
by Walter Chaw Steven Soderbergh's Che is the curative to the Hollywood biopic formula that insists on reducing interesting/important historical figures to their workshop elements. It sees Ernesto "Che" Guevara as a charismatic figure but no T-shirt deity, as a guerrilla fighter with blood on his hands but also a revolutionary almost holy in his single-minded conviction that things weren't fair in the world and that one man--or one small group of heavily-armed men--could affect change that mattered. It's not a political film in the sense that it takes sides, rendering it a political film by the fact of it having no agenda except to make it difficult to condemn or celebrate first the events leading up to the success of the Cuban Revolution, then the failure of the Bolivian Revolution (which ended in Che's death). Soderbergh goes from close and medium shots in the first half--known as Che Part One in its marathon "roadshow" incarnation and as The Argentine in parts of the country where it and Che Part Two (a.k.a. The Guerrilla) are being treated as unique films--to an increasing distance for the second, a subtle, evocative move away from Che's idealism.
Compare the first half's declaration that love is the single most important quality for a revolutionary to possess to the second half's implication that said love becomes something so profoundly abstract (like any love) that Che's search for a new mistress in a Bolivian revolution is doomed to distraction. Played by Benicio Del Toro in shades of sadness, Che, physically frail and given to frequent asthma attacks, reminds of the Romantic poets, and that recognition of mortal brevity--which could be mistaken as casual and unaffected--is actually a committed turn that sees this revolutionary as a seeker of a different kind. Always best as the damned and lovelorn, Del Toro captures a sense of unrecoverable loss in the character that's at odds with the popular image of the raving ideologue. He's driven not by a political agenda, but by the hope of influence and legacy. (Find in that his drive to be a doctor and, eventually, a healer of collective wrongdoing.) The sadness of Che is that it's a portrait of a man who spends his life preparing to be the martyr.
The bifurcated film begins with Guevara as a key lieutenant in Fidel Castro's (Demián Bichir) uprising against the Cuban Batista government. It's a nod to the relative unimportance of a history lesson in this context, however, that Soderbergh opens with a careful, wordless survey of a map of Cuba, cuts frequently to an interview with Che that takes place well after this coup, and leaves history to the historians. Che is an emotional history of jungle, guerrilla tactics and the belief that the best way to fight is to not only learn how to pick off snipers, but to become literate as well, because a literate people are harder to fool. If there's irony in that--and irony, too, in that what this revolution wrought was an eternal tyranny beneath a single godhead that almost sparked a nuclear war between two superpowers (hardly a triumph for the proletariat)--so be it. Del Toro's Che demonstrates the power of a handshake and, with Soderbergh's sober, slightly-elevated realism lending brutal weight to the thud of bullets and falling bodies (think Gus Van Sant of Elephant shooting a war film--or a de-mystified Terrence Malick), illustrates the cost of a leader in war dealing with the loss of so many who trusted him to ensure their sacrifice wouldn't be in vain. The politics are less important than the vigour invested in them. It's equally unsurprising that in 1960s America Che became an icon to the college set, then embroiled in its own cultural revolution, or that in the modern conversation he seems more allied to the marketing of his image than to executing deserters and carrying out "illegal" actions against elected governments.
The second half of Che deals with Guevara's abandonment of the Cuban cause following Castro's installation as the country's prime minister. Soderbergh leads with archival footage of Castro reading Che's letter to him in 1965, announcing that he's moved on to another fight with new comrades in pursuit of the same worker's paradise. Already distancing us from the charismatic, battlefield Che forged throughout the previous section, Soderbergh thus inhibits any chance of histrionics, i.e., the soul-searching cutaways and bold declarations that there are new lands to conquer in his crusade. When Che meets fresh charges while in disguise, a lieutenant tells the youngsters that they've just shaken hands with Che Guevara (to which one responds, "Can I shake his hand again?"). Nearly the entire initial thirty minutes of Che Part Two has Che subverting his image and rejecting, sometimes by necessity, his celebrity, only to discover there's no rejecting the accumulation of acolytes. The first part of Che is a man's desire for meaningful self-destruction, the second the imposition of destruction on him by the expectations of this specific variety of celebrity; the spontaneity of his early life has been pulled from him and Soderbergh reflects this in the suddenly inevitable presence among the cast of movie stars like Matt Damon and Franka Potente, reunited from the Bourne franchise no less. The camera is rarely close to Che for the whole of the rest of the film (his speech to the UN is viewed from the nosebleed section), and though it's never clear if the man sways in his convictions, it's abundantly clear that the form of his legacy is no longer his to dictate.
From the self-awareness, artistry, and ballsiness of Che to the unfortunate watered-down quality of Gus Van Sant's Milk. A biopic (in almost every traditional, conventional sense) of slain gay-rights leader Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), it traces the usual rags-to-riches-to-assassin's bullet of every single one of these things you've seen in the last fifty years of American cinema. No nuance, seldom a hint of doubt; all the beautiful sadness of Che is translated into an audio tape that Milk records in the event of his well-known murder at the peak of his influence and notoriety. Not faring much better are Milk's lovers, played by a non-descript James Franco and tearful Diego Luna, used--as the rest of the cast is used--as more or less appendices to Milk's victories and temporary setbacks. It's not long before the picture becomes a tally sheet for major events--Ray set in the Castro.
The film gathers a bit of momentum whenever assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin who between this and W. is building himself quite the gallery of rogues) appears; Brolin gives his closeted, psychotic attentions just the right attaboy intensity to offset the broadly-grinning, boyish, amiable, almost-martyred Milk. (I wouldn't be much surprised if Milk's injury pattern according to Van Sant corresponds with St. Sebastian's.) There's so much interest in the righteousness of Milk's politics in regards to stuff like allowing homosexuals to teach school, and there are so many illiterate, mouth-breathing straw dogs set up to oppose him, that it all ends up feeling like a punishment no matter how not-in-doubt is the morality of his position. The film's strongest rejoinder is a reminder in a year that rekindled the racial division in huge swaths of our country that a commensurately huge number of our fellow Americans are pricks, although its flat approach serves the choir no benefit. Clumsily-written and plotted according to the Syd Field outline for this kind of movie, it takes a man of unusual pluck (and timing) and grinds him into common gravel. Penn is fine as the ventriloquist's dummy, which is to say that his performance always feels like a performance and that this intense interest in presenting his ideologies and projecting some theory about his interior life actually retards attempts to understand what it is that transforms some men into symbols and others into sheep. People who complain that Che is oblique in comparison are simply closed off to the echo chambers and sounding boards of themselves. Originally published: January 9, 2009.