With his bifurcated status as Hollywood powerhouse and indie maverick, there are few directors besides Steven Soderbergh with both the creative chops and the stubborn drive to make a film like Che. A more mainstream director would feel forced to smooth the political edges, and a more resolutely indie director might be tempted to make a retro-propaganda film about Che Guevara, all fluttering flags and poster-ready stalwart revolutionaries sweeping the capitalists from power.
To his credit, Soderbergh doesn’t fall into either of these traps with Che. But he also never figures out a convincing third path to follow. The resulting film is an uneasy mix of war procedural and unabashed hero worship, something like a guerrilla take (both in the artistic and military sense) on Patton.
In Franklin Schaffner’s 1970 ode to glorious machismo, General George S. Patton is seen through a lens of unalloyed admiration. He may be a bastard, striding around in ridiculous spit-shined glory and sacrificing soldiers’ lives for his greater glory, but the film definitely wants him to be our bastard. Those hushed scenes in German headquarters, as the Wehrmacht fairly shakes in their boots at the sound of Patton’s approach, and the reverent fear of him that his men hold, they’re all wood for the fire of hero-worship. No matter how many counterpoints that Francis Ford Coppola’s blunt but crafty screenplay interjects, Patton appears here as a soldier-god striding the earth. Coppola no more truly critiques the mad warrior of World War II than he does Michael in The Godfather or Kurtz in Apocalypse Now; moral uncertainties be damned, these are men to be reckoned with.
Stylistically, Soderbergh’s Che is night and day from Patton. The latter was a three-hour Oscar-magnet epic, complete with intermission, thrown together at the end of the studio era with all Hollywood’s arsenal at its disposal. Schaffner’s direction is about as subtle as a fist to the face, though he does know when to stand back and let George C. Scott’s leonine majesty roar. There are indelible moments of artistry, whether it’s the infamous (and curiously abstracted) opening scene of Patton haranguing his troops in front of an American flag that seems bigger than the world, or the haunting flashes of bloody combat flecked throughout. A four-square Hollywood history loaded with the usual elisions of fact, Patton was nevertheless produced with the kind of bravura that today’s meek studios would never dare.
Instead of waiting for an $80 million budget and A-listers to headline, Soderbergh packed himself off into the jungle with a few digital cameras, Benicio del Toro, and an almost entirely Spanish script. He came back with a four-and-a-half-hour film cut into two slabs (the two were initially shown together, with intermission, before being released as two separate entities) which together more resemble a cinematic primer in small-unit guerrilla warfare tactics than an epic drama.
The first and most thrilling half, The Argentine, follows the Che everyone wants to see: the lean, blazing-eyed former medical student from Argentina who helped launch the invasion that overthrew the Cuban dictator Batista in 1959. As Che, del Toro is every inch the leader whose face has illustrated a million T-shirts and protest banners. His coiled intensity — particularly on display in flashforwards (shot in grainy black-and-white as a nicely chilled alternative to the bulk of the film’s jungle-green hues) to Che’s thunderous address at the United Nations — is shown at a cool remove. Soderbergh rarely jabs the camera in there for emotive closeups, leaving the viewer to see Che much as his threadbare band of fighters come to see him: a calm, caring, natural-born leader.
Soderbergh tries to let Che’s actions speak for him. The Argentine follows, free-form, Che and the Castros’ campaign of lightning strikes and humane attitudes that swiftly crippled Batista’s much larger and better-armed force. It is not a film of speeches or personal asides. About the only conversations seen are brisk tactical exchanges between Che and the Castros. Mostly we’re watching him in action. It’s a portrait that rings pretty true to historical accounts, with Che quickly establishing his authority as both a tough and smart fighter but also a crackerjack field medic; and one who had to struggle through the Sierra Maestra mountains wheezing from chronic asthma, no less.
That adulatory attitude, though, almost does Soderbergh in. He films the battle scenes in a lean manner that avoids war-flick thrills, shooting in natural light with an unhurried editing scheme and very little music. But even so, Soderbergh can’t avoid inserting a scene where Che takes a rocket launcher from a soldier who’d failed to shoot it correctly and, on his first try, scores a direct hit on a house filled with government soldiers. Patton himself hardly did better in the scene from Schaffner’s film when he stands atop a jeep emptying his pistol at German bombers roaring right at him while his men dive for cover. One treatment might have been more bombastic than the other, but the message is the same.
Both men are leaders their men would have died for, and did, but sadly it’s the big, stomping Patton that occasionally tries to see what powers its subject’s manias. Soderbergh is a calmer sort, content to sit at a distance and map things out, watching his hero stride tall across the landscape. There are times when The Argentine is like Aleida March, the beautiful young revolutionary (played by a gorgeous but blank Catalina Sandino Moreno) who insistently tags along with Che near the conclusion of the campaign, and later became his wife.
The second film, The Guerrilla, is less adulatory, if only because it shows Che in the sunset of his life. It’s a neat trick by Soderbergh, jumping from Cuba’s liberation and the few glimpses of Che soon afterward — all cigar, beard, beret, and swagger — right past the desultory aftermath (a failed insurrection in the Congo, a frustrating stint as government bureaucrat) to his final days of revolutionary martyrdom.
The Guerrilla is a catalog of tactical failure. A poorly thought-out plan sends a disguised Che to Bolivia to foment revolt against the American-backed military government. But whereas all the factors worked in Che’s favor in Cuba, none do in Bolivia. Che’s team seems less than motivated, the Bolivian army is far more competent than Batista’s undisciplined mob, and the peasants themselves are less than thrilled about this hacking, bearded Argentinian trying to tell them what to do. It’s as through the tide of history simply reversed, and is now flowing against the man who once had everything turning out right.
As the noose tightens around Che’s dwindling band, and the army chips away at them in one skillful ambush after another, Soderbergh slowly ratchets up the tension to a gut-churning degree. But even though everything goes wrong in his campaign (whether through bad luck or hubris), the film never puts the blame at Che’s feet. By the time he’s ignominiously gunned down in a rude hut, it’s as though Che has undergone his stations of the cross, bloodied but unbowed, ready for martyrdom.
The two parts of Che are less a biography than a war film in the final reckoning, and as such, an exceptionally good one, rivaling The Battle of Algiers in its You-Are-There sensibility. But no matter how guerrilla-style Soderbergh may have shot his epic, his treatment of the man is a quite conservative one. Soderbergh’s Che is just another Great Man of history, staring into the future with pained and wizened eyes, distant as a statue and just as unrewarding a subject. At least the Patton of the film wrote poetry.