“You know how much I admire Che Guevara. In fact, I believe that the man was not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age: as a fighter and as a man, as a theoretician who was able to further the cause of revolution by drawing his theories from his personal experience in battle.”
~ Jean-Paul Sartre
I liked Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, not necessarily because it was a story from the vast Star Wars mythos, but because it was a well-told war story about an uprising of the poor against the heart of an empire. Tales of peasant uprising and rebellion against the powers that be have always been a crucial part of our cultural storytelling and histories. I was especially struck, while viewing Rogue One in the theaters, by the presence of understated actor Diego Luna.
Luna is a Mexican actor who plays the part of Cassian Andor, a rebel soldier, and was asked by Edwards to “keep the accent.” This important directorial choice may seem small but it cements the character of Cassian Andor as the incarnation of something that exists outside and far beyond Star Wars or mythologies/fantasies of uprising. I was reminded, simply by Luna’s presence as a rebel soldier and leader, that the Hispanic community has faced a number of necessary and dangerous uprisings in their history.
As I watched the fantastic performance by Luna, I was reminded of a young Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Che was the Argentinian surgeon, Marxist philosopher, soldier, and brains behind Fidel Castro’s guerrilla rebellion in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra and the Cuban campaign in Bolivia which ended in disaster. The infamous red and black image of Che has graced many a Hot Topic tee shirt over the years. Since a young age, I had always wanted to get closer to the man on the graphic tee, and with Steven Soderbergh’s \two-part film Che, I feel like I got that chance.
I had seen The Motorcycle Diaries by Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles. It’s a pleasant, dream-like adaptation of Che’s diaries of his early days witnessing the poverty and need around him in South America. The handsome and gifted Gael Garcia Bernal captures Che’s early dreams of peacefully saving his people well. But, it was with Sodebergh’s Che that I felt like I really met the full human, sinner and saint. Amy Taubin says in her Criterion essay Why Che?, “…Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, hero of the Cuban Revolution, who became in death a global icon of militant leftism—and of inchoate adolescent rebellion. As the latter, he has been, ironically, a capitalist windfall—the face that launched a trillion posters and T-shirts. Soderbergh’s movie is neither a traditional biopic nor an analysis of Che as the brand that never goes out of style.”
Soderbergh’s film rescues Che from the pop-punk tee and puts us on the ground with him as he was in the midst of the blood, sweat, and guts of guerrilla warfare. It feels like a very long war documentary, shot on the ground. Taubin says, “[Che] is a detailed representation of guerilla warfare, shot in a manner that is as close to guerilla filmmaking as a roughly $60 million production can get.” For Part One: The Argentine, Sodebergh’s direct inspiration was Che’s own Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. And for Part Two: Guerilla it was Che’s The Bolivian Diary. Benicio del Toro and his fellow actors are not called to put on their best performances, really. They are called to be Che and the revolutionaries. Period. There is never a moment, in either film, when I feel like I’m watching del Toro or Demian Bichir. They are, unmistakably, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
At one point in Part One, Che meets up with brother revolutionary Camilo who asks him, “Where did you get these peasants?” With a smile of pride, Che responds, “These are my troops. They are working out well, man!” Again, as Che is explaining the revolutionary code to a batch of new recruits, he says with the sternness of a parent, “We respect the peasants, so no one is allowed to touch their harvest, or mess with them or their families. If anyone does, he will be punished to the full extent of the revolutionary code.” He makes this speech following the capture and rape of a young peasant woman by rebel soldiers, the very people fighting for them. Che’s army hunts down those guilty of the rape and theft and has them shot to death in the woods.
Che is depicted as a harsh taskmaster and violent rebel, but he is also the gentle doctor and loving caretaker of his army. Che becomes, to a certain extent, an intellectual father figure to these peasant soldiers. He teaches them math and how to read and write. He also insists that they do their homework if they have nothing better to do. In fact, Che insists that all of his new recruits know how to read and write as well as shoot. “We are not here in the middle of the mountains just to fire guns,” he says. “A country that doesn’t know how to read and write is easy to deceive.”
It becomes clear that Che was not only interested or fascinated by change, but believed strongly that it needed to be fully embodied. Che calls the fuel of his rebellion “love” and Soderbergh calls it “outrage.” Says Taubin, “The development and making of Che coincided with the two terms of the George H.W. Bush presidency, which steamrollered its disastrous right-wing foreign, domestic, and economic policies over a cowed, ineffectually organized liberal opposition. Elaborating on his fascination with Che’s will, Soderbergh explained:
‘His ability to sustain outrage is what is remarkable to me. We all get outraged about stuff, but to sustain it to the point of putting your ass on the line to change what outrages you, to do it consistently year after year, and to twice walk away from everything and everybody to do it—it’s not normal.’”
Maybe because Soderbergh is an American citizen living in the postmodern age that he noticed Che’s sustained outrage. Outrage to Che, and perhaps to revolutionaries all over the world and across time, is a virtue. Jesus of Nazareth, a non-violent rabbi and political dissident, believed that anger and outrage could be righteous.
Soderbergh does not shy away from all sides of the fighting. Che may have started out with a gentle heart, but in Soderbegh’s film he is depicted as a violent man as well as a thoughtful leader. When soldiers ask to leave the fighting, Che calls them “cowards” and “faggots.” Good surgeons know that in order to heal a body effectively, at times infected limbs need to be cut off. Some scenes of Part One are filmed in black and white and take place at the United Nations. Julia Ormond plays Lisa Howard, a journalist who asks Che some of the toughest questions he has been asked about the revolution. She questions him, pointedly, about the violent take-overs of small towns throughout Cuba. Che responds, without missing a beat, “When someone hates their government, it is not hard to take a town.” Che and Castro were always clear about the fact that they were not the sole members of the revolution. Soderbergh captures this in Part One by always placing other people in every shot with Del Toro’s Che. Che never stands alone.
While Part One and Part Two are two parts of the story of Che, they are strikingly different films. Part One is expansively shot through panoramic vistas. The rebellion feels larger. There is room for movement and progress. Part Two is shot narrowly with a handheld camera. It is, for all intensive purposes, a horror film. The panoramic Che Part One: The Argentine ends famously with the rebellion’s victory over Batista and his corrupt government and military. The people of Cuba, under the rule of Fidel Castro, are now free, thanks to Che and his bold, uncompromising leadership.
Che Part Two: Guerilla is so narrowly shot that it feels, with every new shot, that the picture is closing in on Che and his new band of revolutionaries in Bolivia. The dread builds. Part Two is decidedly claustrophobic. Both films are necessary parts of one story, really, but Part Two sheds light on the horror of failure despite our best, and most passionate, efforts. Soderbergh referred to the two films as the “call and response” of the Che project. While Soderbergh certainly does not gloss over all of the realities of Che’s divisive person, he does skip over the multiple brutal executions Che had a personal hand in following the end of the Cuban Revolutionary War. Maybe we don’t need that particular part of the story. As Part Two unfolds, the film begins to cut every hero of the revolution out of the picture until we are left with only Che. He is alone. In Bolivia, as opposed to Cuba, the government has the support and assistance of the United States. Che isn’t making it out of this one alive. His maxim, of course, was “to survive, one must live as if one were already dead.” Che is cornered in an old barn. The camera has completely closed in on him in close up. The moment feels less about the Bolivian uprising and more about Che’s inner existential conflict. How could the brilliant surgeon-philosopher and guerrilla warlord have underestimated the powers of the allied Bolivian and American governments? We see here what happens when the “powers that be” simply want a pesky fly removed from their tea. Che was an intelligent and, as such, dangerous rebel leader who had caught the attention of and inspired the world. Clearly, he needed to be silenced. Amy Taubin, with eloquence, captures the conclusion of Che Part Two: Guerrilla better than I can: “After Che has received the executioner’s bullet, rather than focusing on his face, Soderbergh employs a similar strategy, the camera slowly losing focus and going to white, but this time, instead of following Che, we see the ground from his dying point of view—the only sustained point-of-view shot in the film. What makes the image so moving is that the life force –Che’s will—becomes one and the same with the recording function of the camera. They reach the end in perfect sync.”
Che is my favorite of Steven Soderbergh’s films and, I believe, his greatest achievement. It is not a film drenched in glitz and glory. It is not the cool precision of the Ocean’s trilogy, the action and espionage of Haywire, the dark mystery of Side Effects, or the glamour and glitter of Behind the Candelabra and Magic Mike. It is instead, honest. Perhaps the most honest film I have ever seen.
Since the election of our insidious president Trump, the words and thoughts of revolutionaries have been ringing in my ears. Jesus, Gandhi, Rev. Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, etc. have all risen up and lead movements of peace and non-violence against the oppressive powers of their time. The questions Che asked himself and asks us in contemporary America are as follows “When is enough enough? Is there ever a need for violence? If not, where do we draw the line?” Che wasn’t the only one to ask these important questions. Malcolm X asked these questions. Theologian and non-violent practitioner Dietrich Bonhoeffer plotted the assassination of Adolf Hitler, which failed.
Bonhoeffer, unlike Che, said, due to his commitment to non-violence that he “deserved damnation” for his decision to help kill Hitler. As a pacifist, I myself find Che’s actions questionable. After viewing the Walter Salles film adaptation of Che’s The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), I related strongly with Gael Garcia Bernal’s portrayal of the young medical school student. He is wide-eyed and curious about the world. His heart of compassion grows bigger by the minute as he reaches out to serve and treat the poorest of the poor in South America. These marginalized poor are clearly being impacted by oppressive regimes of power assuming governance over their lands and their lives. At the conclusion of Salles’s film (I have never read the book) Bernal’s Ernesto Guevara heads back home with dread and unanswered questions in his heart. It is not until the young Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel, show up at his home for dinner some years later that Dr. Guevara comes to the conclusion that non-violent compassion cannot solve corrupt and oppressive regimes of government.
Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara showed the world that uprising is, in and of itself, a virtue. Disobedience is a human value. We must take note of this and disobey, boldly, in the face of President Trump’s selfish and corrupt power mongering. However, Che also showed the world that uprising should and must involve cold, calculated violence. His mindset was the same, unfortunately, as Joseph Stalin’s and other dictators. We must see Che for all that he was and pick and choose the light over and above the dark. Steven Soderbergh offers us this opportunity. In Che Part One: The Argentine during his interview, Che is asked what the most important component of revolution is. He says, “Let me tell you something at the risk of sounding ridiculous. A true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love, love of humanity, justice, and truth. It’s impossible to conceive of an authentic revolutionary without this quality.”
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.