Steven Soderbergh’s Che depicts the two military campaigns that defined the rise and fall of 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. Rather, it is a detailed representation of guerrilla warfare, shot in a manner that is as close to guerrilla filmmaking as a roughly $60 million production can get. While $60 million may seem like a great deal of money, it’s chump change compared with the average price of studio action pictures, especially since Che is actually two feature-length films, shot on location with thirty-nine days allotted for each, and both with large casts of characters.
As protean as he is prolific, Soderbergh has applied his astonishing directorial intelligence and energy to almost every genre of filmmaking, reenvisioning them from a contemporary perspective and through the use of cutting-edge moving-image technologies. With Che, he adds the war movie to his filmography, and an epic one at that: in length, scale, and narrative breadth, it’s simply a bigger film than any other Soderbergh has put his hand to. But Che is also built like a procedural, from microscopic details of the daily life of a band of guerrillas taking on the official armies of two countries. This kind of internal contradiction is the structuring principle underlying all of Soderbergh’s films—not in a Marxist sense but in a formal or aesthetic one. And it is even more evident in the relationship between films he conceived in close proximity to each other. The sexy, extroverted Out of Sight (1998) and the melancholy, introspective The Limey (1999), for example, are more dazzling as a pop art romantic coupling than either is singly, and the two social-issue blockbusters Erin Brockovich and Traffic, both Oscar winners in 2000, are a similar pair of opposites, the former focused on a single heroic character, the latter on three interwoven narratives. In the decade when Soderbergh was directing the glossy blockbuster caper movies Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Ocean’s Twelve (2004), and Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), he was also making a series of fast-and-dirty, microbudgeted indie flicks: Full Frontal (2002), Bubble (2005), and The Girlfriend Experience (2009).
What Soderbergh has described as the “call and response” relation between the two parts of Che—called The Argentine and Guerrilla for the original European release—is, however, intrinsic to the form and meaning of the work as a whole. Part One focuses on the 1956–58 campaign in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra and ends in glory with Che and Fidel en route to Havana. Part Two follows Che’s disastrous 1967 attempt to repeat the Cuban strategy in Bolivia and ends with his death, at age thirty-nine, and the first moments of his transformation into an icon of resistance. Both were shot with the RED, a lightweight, extremely sturdy and flexible digital camera that was, at the time, still in its prototype phase. As he first did on Traffic and has done on all his films since, Soderbergh, under the name of Peter Andrews, served as the director of photography. With its panoramic vistas, Part One is expansive; Part Two, shot in the narrower 1.78:1 format and with a handheld camera from beginning to end, grows increasingly claustrophobic as Che is hemmed in and finally captured by the Bolivian military. Taken together, the two parts, with their different styles and their diametrically opposed outcomes, create an inseparable whole that is larger, more moving, and intellectually richer than either is on its own.
“It was such a difficult production that whether or not what you got was up to a certain standard was not even in your mind during the day,” said Soderbergh, in an interview I did with him in 2008 for Film Comment magazine, shortly before Che was released. “You had six pages to shoot, and often there were ten or fifteen people in all those scenes, or it was a battle sequence, and you were just hanging on by your fingernails to get through the day. But to get pushed that hard creatively is a good thing. What interested me most was the process and the physical difficulty. In the case of Cuba, these people slept outside for two years. Just being out there made you appreciate the mental and physical stamina it took to do what they did.”
In other words, the film is a hall of mirrors in which what takes place on the screen reflects the production process and the production process mimics the aspects of Che’s life that Soderbergh chooses to put on the screen. That is not, of course, to equate filmmaking with revolutionary struggle. Che made history; Soderbergh represents a part of the history he made, relying heavily on Che’s own representation of guerrilla warfare. Part One is based on Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, excerpts from which are spoken in voiceover by Che (Benicio Del Toro). For Part Two, Che’s The Bolivian Diaries serves as an even stronger structuring device, the film taking its linearity and day-by-day accounting from writing that Che did in the field and that, by the time of his last, fatal campaign, had become an intrinsic part of his revolutionary labors. What is striking about Soderbergh’s use of these first-person texts is that it doesn’t skew the films toward Che’s subjectivity. Rather, they are treated as objects of historical significance—Che’s road maps for two guerrilla campaigns, one a wildly unlikely triumph, the other a horrific disaster. Unlike David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or Warren Beatty’s Reds, Soderbergh’s Che is not a hagiography or a romance. It is not a psychological study either, and it doesn’t have a political ax to grind on the left or the right, although it can spur viewers to their own researches on Che, the Cuban Revolution, and related issues. The film is, however, a profoundly dialectical work. J. Hoberman, writing in the Virginia Quarterly Review, observed: “As in [Roberto Rossellini’s] The Age of the Medici or Blaise Pascal, action is the materialization of thought.” Hoberman was referring specifically to Soderbergh’s use of Che as “constantly speaking subject (addressing the townspeople, negotiating the local commander’s surrender on bluff and bravado)” during the great battle of Santa Clara sequence, which comes at the climax of Part One. But the dialectical relationship between theory and practice applies to both parts of the film, where ideas—expressed in the voiceover excerpts and in dialogue in the first, and solely and sparingly in dialogue in the second—are always juxtaposed with actions.
It may have been the possibility of the “materialization of thought” in the form of a movie that attracted Soderbergh, one of the most cerebral of American directors, to the Che project, which was originally Del Toro and producer Laura Bickford’s baby. Soderbergh himself often answers the question “Why Che?” with two words: “His will.” Hoberman, in the VQR article, wonders if Soderbergh read the last letter Che sent to his parents, in which he refers to “the willpower” that he “polished with an artist’s attention.” Certainly, in the arena of filmmaking, Che required of Soderbergh an act of extraordinary will, not only during the exhausting seventy-eight days of shooting but in the extended period of development—during which the script (and the budget) was entirely reconfigured so that, rather than one impossibly dense and long feature film, Che became two separate works, composed as mirror opposites. One imagines also that it was the stubborn intensity with which Che pursued his belief in revolutionary armed struggle that inspired Soderbergh to stick to his vision of the film in the wake of a mixed critical response at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival premiere. Given that audiences expect to be spoon-fed their narratives and have their action sequences punched up like video games, Che is militantly uncommercial filmmaking. It’s also a masterpiece that speaks as much to our contemporary social and political malaise as it does to the revolutionary ardor and failed hopes of the 1960s. The development and making of Che coincided with the two terms of the G. 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.”
Soon after the opening of Part One, we see Che on the deck of the Granma, the boat that carried Fidel and his ridiculously tiny band of eighty-odd guerrillas from Mexico to Cuba. Che is standing against the rail, looking across the deck at Fidel and his brother Raúl as if he’s wondering whether he’s gotten in over his head. Part Two ends with an identical shot, allowing us, with the advantage of hindsight, to experience the poignancy of Che’s youthful gamble and the epic dimension of his journey. It is only by watching the two films together that one fully comprehends the pity and the terror that are the mark of that most rare of film narratives—a genuine tragedy—and recognizes its fatally flawed hero as a martyr in the doomed twentieth-century struggle against global capitalism.
The first part is set largely in the mountainous jungles of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra region in 1958. It’s shot in the manner of an action movie—formatted in widescreen anamorphic, with the camera either fixed or moving on a dolly. The staggered build of the narrative has a sustained twenty-minute, high-adrenaline payoff in the battle of Santa Clara, in which Batista’s military was overwhelmed by Che’s guerrillas and the armed struggle for Cuba was effectively won. Unlike the dense, dark green forests and burned brown scrub of the mountain region, Santa Clara looks like a desert town; its sun-bleached blue-green and salmon-colored buildings and white gravel streets offer little cover for either side. Soderbergh’s staging underlines the brilliance of Che’s military strategy; the derailing and capture of the train filled with Batista’s forces counts among the most elegantly choreographed action sequences in movie history.
That said, Part One upends more action narrative codes than it obeys. The editing is extremely elliptical, shifting abruptly back and forth between the campaign of 1958 and two sequences set in 1964, one in Havana, where Che is being interviewed for TV, and the other in New York, where, on a mission to address the UN, he is trailed by paparazzi and feted by the leftist intelligentsia. The 1964 sequences are shot cinema-verité-style—handheld on black-and-white 16 mm stock. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman manage to condense a huge amount of expositional material about the Cuban Revolution and its aftermath into a very few minutes, as well as to give us a glimpse of Che, the orator and Marxist debater, at the height of his rock star power. The editing is designed to keep the viewer mentally alert—you have to put together the pieces of a puzzling life—and to create narrative tension. At one point, Soderbergh suddenly cuts from the cocky excitement of 1964 to Che at perhaps his lowest point in the Sierra Maestra campaign, isolated save for one guide and struggling to keep the coughing brought on by an asthma attack from being overheard by enemy forces. Each of the scenes in the Sierra Maestra makes a specific point: how to fight in the jungle, how to make alliances among political factions, how to solidify relationships with the local people, how to recruit and train fighters, how to discipline the recruits (by execution when they betray or desert the cause). Without completely relinquishing the sense of momentum (the jagged undercurrent of Alberto Iglesias’s score is a great tension builder), Soderbergh also includes scenes in which action plateaus and everyone just hangs out and waits.
There is no such downtime in Part Two, which is shaped entirely as a horror movie in the “and then there were none” mode. Accounting in a few title cards for Che’s activity in the decade since we left him on the road to Havana (no victory celebration permitted in Soderbergh’s ascetic schema, and also no mention of Che’s role in the hundreds of executions that followed), Part Two begins with Che taking leave of Fidel and of his wife and children, and, ingeniously disguised, slipping into Bolivia, where he plans to set up a base to train fighters for a Marxist revolution that will spread throughout Latin America. But unlike Cuba, where, as Fidel understood, conditions were ripe for revolution, Bolivia is the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed, Part Two is the antithesis in every way of Part One. Soderbergh matches the sections almost scene for scene. Where Fidel brought the various factions on the left together during the Cuban struggle, the Communist Party in Bolivia, despite the assurances of support that it had given Fidel, turns its back on Che once he arrives. Where the Cuban farmers supported the guerrillas, the Bolivian peasants fear Che even more than they fear the Bolivian military. A series of close-ups of the determined, hopeful faces of Che’s fighters in Part One has its counterpart in Part Two, where, shown one by one, each veteran or new volunteer embodies Che’s maxim that “to survive, one must live as if one were already dead.” In Cuba, Batista had underestimated the guerrilla struggle until it was too late. In Bolivia, the government and its U.S. advisers are determined to put a speedy end to Che and his revolution. Indeed, the odds against Che’s plan are so overwhelming that it is clear almost from the start that what we are seeing is the hubris that brought down the heroes of Greek tragedy, or a case study in Freud’s “repetition/compulsion” as the mechanism of the death drive.
Except in the 1964 sequences, Che is never seen in close-up in Part One. Soderbergh’s insistence on framing the hero of the film so that he’s never alone on the screen is a visual illustration of Che’s ideological commitment to collective struggle. The framing, which often positions Che somewhat apart from the others, suggests that even as he is throwing himself into the immediacy of combat, he also sees himself from the outside, as a military strategist fighting for a political cause and ideology he articulates with great brilliance. In combination with the voiceover excerpts, the literally distanced images give Part One a distinctive push-pull quality, reinforced by Del Toro’s remarkable performance, in which intensity is as much a matter of mind as body. Toward the end of Part Two, however, Soderbergh’s camera begins to move closer, as if the struggle is now internal to Che and existential. The largest close-up of Che is at the moment he faces down his executioner, saying “Do it now. Shoot.” Soderbergh permits some half dozen shots in the closing minutes of the film that are more emotive than anything that has come before. When Che is wounded and cornered by the army, he desperately tries to pull himself to shelter. The camera follows him, close on his body, the image out of focus and all but whitened out by the rays of sunlight cutting through the trees and the dust raised by the fighting. On the soundtrack, we hear a repetitive, low-frequency electronic loop—the equivalent of blood pumping through the brain, obliterating exterior sound. 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.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor at Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes frequently for Artforum.