Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (memoirs), Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen (screenplay)
On general release from 1st January 2009
Fifty years ago, a group of insurgents overthrew the dictatorship of Cuban President General Fulgencio Batista, who had been supported by the United States. This anniversary provides us with a perfect opportunity to examine the Cuban revolution, but unfortunately Steven Soderbergh spurns it with his biopic of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the iconic guerilla leader.
It’s not as if the director hasn’t done his homework. Each battle sequence is carefully staged, for maximum historical accuracy (or at least according to what Guevara said in his memoirs). Although jungle warfare is definitely a change of scenery for the man behind the Ocean’s franchise, the same love of tactics and strategies is apparent. However, fighting a revolution is very different to a heist, and people go into it for very different reasons. Those reasons are lost amongst the three dimensional chess game that Soderbergh presents, and the results are therefore far from inspirational.
When we first meet Che (played by Benicio Del Toro), he is sitting around a dinner table in Mexico, with Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) amongst others. The year is 1955, a couple of years after Guevara’s travels through Latin America with his friend Alberto Granado, which were documented in 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries. Though he thinks Castro may be a bit crazy, the Argentinian doctor agrees to join the 26th July Movement, and try to dethrone the hated Batista. Che, Fidel, and eighty others then sail to Cuba aboard the Granma – a cabin cruiser as ancient as it sounds.
From there, the next two hours takes us through intense and arduous guerilla warfare – relived in painstaking detail – right through to the taking of Santa Clara on 1st January 1958, and victory. These battle scenes are intercut with re-enacted excerpts from Guevara’s 1964 trip to New York, where he addressed the United Nations. Here – as in the jungle – Del Toro plays Guevara with great passion, if little subtlety, and his speech gives some clues as to the iconic fighter’s motivations. Some, but not enough.
Born into a comfortably off family with a leftist background, Guevara was clearly deeply affected by the suffering he saw on his youthful journey through Central and Southern America. He later stayed in Guatemala, where he saw popularly elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán fall victim of a US-engineered coup. In the absence of a strong class-based struggle against profit and empire, his idea of guerilla war against the “capitalist octopuses” was formed. For him – and many like him throughout the majority world, guns and bombs rather than strikes and factory occupations suddenly seemed like they could provide a way out of the misery.
Very little of this is shown in part one. Instead, Soderbergh’s Guevara is an abstraction – someone who wears the same clothes, talks the same way and even wheezes like the Argentinian anti-imperialist, but shows little humanity. We see the body moving, but we don’t see why it moves, and it has less character than Alberto Korda‘s famous photograph.
Next month, Part Two takes Che into government, the Congo, and Bolivia, where he meets his death.