By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
TIFF Review – Che'
My first reaction to Steven Soderbergh’s Che’ was absolute shock at the idiocy and arrogance of it all… that is to say, the idiocy and the arrogance of the response from Cannes.
This is one reason why I hate seeing a movie “after the fact.” It is a real challenge to all critics – and any one of them that claims it is not is more self-delusional than most and should probably be more distrusted – to not react to the criticism of others, whether to embrace it or to reject it, when one sees a film that gets the kind on biting response that Che’ got in Cannes.
For me, it was Friday morning, 9am, anticipating 4 hours and 22 minutes of film, without credits. Exhausted, but as part of an excited full house at the Ryerson screening room. No food allowed… no coffee… oy.
But the proof is in the work. I think that prior reactions were driven by traditions, expectations, and the combination of an indulgent effort by Soderbergh with The Good German, preceded by the more interesting, but also relentlessly arthouse Bubble and followed by the overtly commercial effort of Ocean’s 13. And before that… Ocean’s 12 and Solaris. Before that? Full Frontal and Ocean’s 11. In other words, it’s been eight years since Traffic blew (many) critics away and then gathered up some of the stragglers who finally caught up with the brilliance in the film after it started having awards thrown at it. (Recall the screaming that Traffic was impossibly overlong at 2:27?)
Really, critics haven’t had the great romance with Soderbergh since The Limey.
But critics, as we so often prove, are often not arbiters of art, but members of a certain kind of frat where art is defined by often great, but somewhat audience-unfriendly films like Momma’s Man or Man On Wire. Everything else, like an unattractive woman in a frat house, is just not good enough. (Except, of course, until the night gets late and the beer goggles go on, the drunk of these critics often created by a story or two about critics being out of touch.)
Soderbergh, for me, is one of the key modern figures of cheap critical derision. He isn’t Kubrick, but he does suffer similar slings and arrows. The Coen Bros. get the same treatment in fits and starts. He has always done anti-commercial work in between more commercial efforts. His response to breaking through commercially with Sex, Likes & Videotape was Kafka for God’s f-ing sakes. He then made King of The Hill, which current day Fox Searchlight or Focus would have ridden to a slew of Oscar nominations and more than $40 million at the box office. The often sparkling Gramercy never put it on more than 5 screens at any time. Then it was The Underneath, a movie that clearly presages much of what SS does in The Limey, the Spaulding Gray doc/performance art piece, Gray’s Anatomy, and the wacky, crazy, personal Schizopolis. But most civilians just leap from Sex, Lies to Out of Sight. Critics (mostly) remember the other films… but seem to forget that this is how one of the world’s finest working filmmakers works.
But I guess I digress…
And perhaps it is because the glory of Che’ has a lot to do with what it is, more than anything that is easily encapsulated in a review written after only one viewing. Yes, the two films, two sides of one narrative coin that is bigger than the life and times of the central character, could have been shortened into a speedy 2.5 hours. But yes, the story could well have gone on for 6 hours. It could well have been three movies of 2 hours and 11 minutes each, the third establishing a middle of Guevara’s work, that was neither as overt a success (in that time) as Cuba or the clear failure of Bolivia. Each of these movies could have been longer.
But Che’ is, it seems to me, exactly what Steven Soderbergh wanted it to be.
I almost hate to explain it at all, as the journey of a film like this is a great part of the experience. As usual, I avoid as much detail as possible before seeing and experiencing any movie.
But here is the short version. Part 1, aka The Argentine, is about Ernesto Guevara – still known primarily as a doctor from Argentina – establishing his relationship with Castro and those who will come to take over Cuba. And then… they take over Cuba.
In the process, Soderbergh and co-screenwriter Peter Buchman (who does exist… not a Soderbergh pseudonym like The Great Peter Andrews) don’t seek to do a complete biography of the man. Instead, they write a biopic that has the perspective, subtly, of the subject of the biography. How much time does his family get? About as much as Guevara seems to give it in his mind.
And Soderbergh/Andrews use the camera to distinguish the inner life and the outer life of the man, though the movie is mostly about the inner life.
The movie is, in many ways, a more-intimate-than-possible documentary (thus, a fictionalized narrative). Instead of telling us things in dialogue or setting up dramatic moments that makes ideas obvious, Soderbergh & Co let Guevara and The Castros and the rest show themselves in the way people really show themselves… in small, human, real moments. They also force the audience to keep its awareness of the future events in check… first, what happened… but the future we all know stares us in the face. This is no revisionist history. There really is no effort to define the politics around these men, but simply to allow them to express what they felt they were doing or what they told others they felt they were doing.
There is great effort to work, in both films, with the true experience of the men and women fighting the fight. This is one of the real feats of Soderbergh’s work here. Unlike Hurt Locker, which does a great job of sharply defining the mechanics of the work of bomb defusing teams (which happen to be in Iraq), this detail is about the feel of the human effort, both on the side of the fighters we are watching and the rural people that they are navigating while also fighting national military forces.
The second half of Che’, aka Guerilla, which matches the first film’s 2:11 running time according to the TIFF presenter (4 minutes longer than Variety’s reported running time from Cannes), is about Guevara’s last stand in Bolivia. And the story could and on its own… but that would be to miss the entire point of the effort.
Written by Soderbergh, Buchman, and Benjamin A. van der Veen, the story follows the man now known by everyone as “Che’,” but who constantly seeks to hide his presence, into a Bolivian rebellion. Here, he has no strong partner, as he had in Fidel Castro in Cuba. But Castro turned out to be more interested in the pleasures of governing and being a legend than in the ideals that inspired he and Guevara in the first place. But without an equal, a balance, who keeps his feet on the ground, can Che’ succeed in his aspirations? Will his celebrity be overwhelm the value of his leadership in this situation? Will he understand the big picture strategy necessary to deal with a very different government and their reactions to his efforts?
It is ironic that The Wrestler got so much love at Toronto, given that Guerilla is so similar as a storyline, albeit set in quite different universes. The Wrestler tells the story of a man struggling to survive his past while wanting nothing so much as to wallow in it. Of course, in The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s character is writ small… tiny, really. Ernesto Guevara is as quiet as Rourke’s wrestler, but while Rourke’s character struggles with his tiny fame, Guevara holds many lives in his hand as a result of his… and still, struggles.
For people looking for a snap and slap testament to Che’s greatness or his hypocrisy or anything definitive, this will never quite work. It just isn’t a straight biopic. It has more in common with Malick’s The Thin Red Line and the second half of Kubick’s Full Metal Jacket than any more traditional war epics… there is a bit of Patton, in conceit though not remotely in character, as well. Soderbergh and his collaborators have taken the story of Che’ Guevara to define their ideas much the way Robert Bolt did for Lean, though this film creates intimacy like Bolt created epics (though Lean hired actors who brilliantly undercut the stuffiness of Bolt to make most of their films together a perfect balance). Che’ is Brando to most biopics’ Heston.
The notion that this film is in any way a “patchwork” or “unfinished” is, simply, not to understand the work. That doesn’t mean that I think anyone has to like it in order to be smart. But professionals should be, at least, able to step away from the work enough to comprehend the effort.
The sad truth is, if Che’ had a French or Italian name after “directed by,” it would be hailed as one of the great achievements of the last decade. Not only would the critic snobbery be engaged, but critics who will not do the heavy lifting for Soderbergh would dig into the subtexts of the film with both hands… if only the film had little chance of becoming well known to US moviegoers who might challenge any interpretation.
In the end, I quite liked Che’ and expect I will like it more and more with additional viewings. It is a challenge to today’s quick cutting and narrow idea movies. It is a challenge to anyone who is not prepared to sit down and let a movie wash over them for four hours and twenty-two minutes, without the intermission or the credits. And if that challenge is not for you, please don’t take offense. The choice of the art you want to embrace is, as it must be, with the individual.
My expectation is that Che’ will do a few million dollars in a very limited release… a bit of a small phenomenon as true movie lovers take up Soderbergh’s challenge. Some will love it. Others will be non-plussed, which given the length, will read as negative. I guess some, particularly those who want it to be something else, will hate it. But it is art, in the very best way. And Soderbergh’s achievement as an artist is undeniable.
Before I go, a word about the acting… since I haven’t felt compelled to offer any yet. It is perfect, from start to end. What that doesn’t mean is that it is a big movie shoot ‘em up of scenery chewing. There is almost none in the film. There are some familiar faces. (One face, Fidel Castro’s, has only become familiar to many people with the new season of Weeds on Showtime.)
Benicio del Toro is perfect and quiet and strong. There is never any question of what is happening in his mind, even when he is nearly silent. He is a believer, first and last. He never sees himself as a martyr. He is just doing what he must. He moves forward. The movie doesn’t linger – or spend much time at all – on “details,” like his family, his sex life, and his other banalities.
But that’s not what this movie is.