Most of what youve heard about Steven Soderberghs Che is true. At four and a half hours, the film, now playing in selected domestic markets and available on video on demand, is extremely long. And even at this length, the film skips over the least convenient, indeed morally repulsive, period of Ernesto Guevaras life. Its a testament to Soderberghs skill that the film still has some meritabove all, the directors typically meticulous composition and audacious experiments with formbut it falls abjectly short of accuracy.
Che does add some teeth to the ethereal Guevara image. Dreamy young road-tripping Gael García Bernal of 2004s The Motorcycle Diaries has given way to a haggard Benicio Del Toro wearing fatigues, in a film whose second half is bluntly titled GUERRILLA. Soderbergh presents Che as an unabashedly ideological revolutionary who rejects any path for change aside from violent struggle. For the most part, the film focuses on his two periods of most intense guerrilla activity, in Cuba and then in Boliviarevolutions to the death in each case. A fellow moviegoer observed afterward that she no longer thought of Guevara as cuddly. Thats a start.
Yet for Soderbergh, this violent Guevara remains a sympathetic figure. Such admiration may have motivated the directors omission of the years that Guevara spent after the revolution in Castros Cuba, supervising executions, establishing the state police, and helping build an authoritarian stateunpleasant activities that the Che T-shirt crowd would rather not examine. Its a politically convenient choice, to be sure, but given the films emphasis on Guevaras guerrilla career, perhaps it makes some artistic sense. A few flashbacks intervene, but for the most part the film concerns itself with combat and survival in the Cuban and Bolivian countryside. This close attention to the practicalities of guerrilla warfare binds together what might have been two tonally incoherent episodesin two different countries and separated by nine years. Showing Guevaras comparatively humdrum years in Castro Cubawhere he killed from behind a desk instead of from behind a riflemight have enervated the films narrative energy.
Do you buy that explanation? I might have, if Soderbergh had presented Guevara more honestly in those guerrilla years. Yet Soderbergh never depicts Guevara doing anything even conceivably wrong. In fact, hes presented as unfailingly virtuous, doing what the rest of us would do if only we possessed his bravery and superior understanding of parasitic capitalism. At one point, a Cuban upbraids Guevara for executing his uncle, but otherwise the film implicitly justifies his every act, while omitting any element of the historical record that might reflect poorly upon him.
Consider a few cases. In the film, Guevara castigates subordinates who want to leave rebel life in Cuba and declares that theyll be treated as traitors if found again. In reality, Guevara and his men conducted immediate summary executions of departing combatantsGuevara records one such incident in his diary. Other historical sources tell of executions conducted on mere suspicions of disloyalty. But in only one case does the film show Guevara ordering subordinates executedwhen they steal from peasants. Something else you wont see in Che: how Guevara treated the enemy, ordering executions of surrendered Batista soldiers shortly before the rebel victory in the Battle of Santa Clara. When he is finally captured, we see him claim to a Bolivian soldier that Christianity flourishes unimpeded in Cuba. Thats what you call a lie, as countless accounts of the persecution of priests and the faithful from Cuba indicate. Again, Soderbergh makes no effort to correct the record.
The film also offers up some of Guevaras more anodyne thinking about violence, including his musing that victory depended on the greater or lesser desire of the troops to fight and confront danger, but we dont hear any of his more blood-curdling thoughts. In his Message to the Tricontinental, for examplea 1967 rallying cry addressed to the Cuba-sponsored Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin Americahe wrote of hatred as an element of struggle; unbending hatred for the enemy, which pushes a human being beyond his natural limitations, making him into an effective, violent, selective, and cold-blooded killing machine.
One can make good arguments against the inclusion of these incidents and quotationsbut Soderbergh doesnt include anything that might besmirch Ches cultural sainthood. He portrays Guevaras antagonists, the Cuban and Bolivian militaries, as practically stock villains. He spares no opportunity to show Guevara administering medical care to children, setting up schools, and feeding the hungry. Guevaras confederates, too, emerge as amiable compañeros all. If you thought that Fidel and Raul Castro, Juan Bosque, and other founders of Cuban Communism would make great buddy-film characters, this is the movie for you. Someone should warn Ridley Scott, whos at work on a new Robin Hood flick, that hes been beaten to the task.
Soderberghs film is not only historically spurious; its morally feckless, given that the Cuban stateGuevaras one lasting creationcontinues to arrest, imprison, and oppress its citizens. In 2004, Paul Berman wondered if fans of The Motorcycle Diaries will ever give a damn about the oppressed people of Cubawill ever lift a finger on behalf of the Cuban liberals and dissidents. We can wonder the same about fans of this film, as well as about its star, who stalked out of an interview with the Washington Times after being challenged on the films portrayal of Guevara. But it seems that Hollywood will never tire of lionizing this brutal advocate of revolutionary violenceand never acknowledge the victims of his murderous ideology.
Anthony Paletta is senior editor of MindingTheCampus.com, a web magazine sponsored by the Manhattan Institutes Center for the American University.