By Bruce Edward Walker
I recently caught director Steven Soderbergh’s new four-hour epic on the life of Che Guevara at an art film theater in suburban Detroit. This woefully ill-conceived film, titled simply “Che,” will be released as two separate movies. The first will document Guevara’s role in the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and the second will recreate events leading up to his execution in Bolivia in 1967.
Cataloging the real Guevara’s brutishness shouldn’t be necessary for contemporary audiences, but many viewing the screening I attended claimed they knew little about the actual life and actions of the real-life man. They came to the theater, they said, “hoping to fill in the blanks” of their knowledge.
The people I talked to conceded that they were impressed by Soderbergh’s depiction of Che Guevara as an ideologically pure revolutionary, a humanitarian doctor who tends to sick children and fallen comrades, and even a man of religious faith. If the only thing you know about Guevara is what you get from this new film, then maybe that view is understandable. But the truth is that “Che” serves essentially as a cinematic paean to one of the twentieth-century’s most infamous butchers who had as much to do with purity, compassion and piety as T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” has to do with garbage dumps.
The film wastes the considerable talents of not only Soderbergh, but also the star power of Benecio Del Toro in the title role. Far worse, however, is the wasted opportunity to portray Guevara honestly to an audience naively believing that the film might complete their education.
Del Toro, soulful and serene throughout, renders his “Che” as a martyr. “The true revolutionary,” he tells us, possesses “love of humanity, justice and truth.” And Del Toro and his cinematic henchman do their best to highlight these traits. For example, in one of the film’s many brief, albeit disingenuous, references to religious faith, Del Toro’s “Che” accepts a religious icon from an elderly lady as he prepares for battle. In another scene, Matt Damon portrays a Catholic priest whose adherence to his faith renders him immune to Guevara’s brand of revolution.
In the film, Guevara explains to a captor that, although he doesn’t adhere to an official religion, “I believe in mankind.” By this point in the film, this disturbing religious squishiness – disturbing because it opens the way to worship of man-made ideologies – has been reinforced repeatedly by constant reminders of Guevara’s (real) medical training and (doubtful) administering to the sick and wounded.
The real “revolutionary” perpetuated acts of criminal cruelty too numerous to recount (the truly curious can read a partial accounting here). However, audience members who saw the film with me were easily swayed by Soderbergh & Co.’s hagiography. “I personally knew of him. I knew a little bit about the Cuban Revolution and his role and little bit about his background, but nothing this extensive,” claimed Dave, a middle-aged man from Oak Park, Mich. “I think it’s a great insight not only of the revolution but also an insight into [Che] as far as he was a very valued humanitarian type of individual … and courageous also. I had heard about it before, but when you see the film it just impresses it just that much more.”
Accompanying Dave was Carol, who added: “I think that they’re depicting this very factual…. I’m really impressed with what I’m seeing, I really am. It’s a piece of history that everybody should see, actually.”
When asked if she thought Cuba was better off after the overthrow of Batista’s oppressive regime, in exchange for another repressive regime, Carol responded: “Well, first of all, you have to know who’s calling it an oppressive regime. Is it the Cubans, the very wealthy ones that didn’t give up the land, the campesinos who escaped and came [from] Cuba and who keep badmouthing [Castro] and have been for years and years? Or, we should be talking to the people over there who had land reform, agrarian reform, clinics put up, healthcare, education that they’ve never had before…. What I hear in America isn’t totally the truth…. The good that [Castro’s] done far outweighs anything else that’s happened over there.”
Movie audiences shouldn’t accept Hollywood’s whitewashing of brutally violent, amoral historical characters. Dave and Carol’s buy-in of Soderbergh’s message is representative of several other patrons I interviewed at the theater.
Pretty to look at (thanks largely to the photography of Peter Andrews), the film is nonetheless a Hollywood-sanitized depiction of the revolutionary who once dreamed of firing Khrushchev’s Cuba-based nuclear arsenal at the United States, oversaw Castro’s La Cabana gulag, advocated bank robbery as a legitimate revolutionary tactic (compare this with Soderbergh’s depiction of Guevara ordering his comrades to return a Chevy convertible stolen from a Batista supporter), and was personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds or thousands of those unlucky enough to incur his disfavor. Such deliberate oversights are a travesty of honest filmmaking and honest history.
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By Bruce Edward Walker