The Man Without a Middle

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Benicio del Toro in Steven Soderbergh's Che.

If you’re one of those people who grumbles that nobody in Hollywood takes chances anymore, take a moment to consider the cases of director Steven Soderbergh and actor Benicio del Toro. Che, their bifurcated film about the beginning and the end of Ernesto Guevara’s career as a revolutionary warrior, seems to share its subject’s disdain for filthy lucre. Where the real Guevara tried to halt the use of money itself in Cuba, this film’s creative principals seem largely indifferent to making any. Soderbergh and del Toro (who played a key role in getting the film made) have produced a four-hour film, complete with intermission (apparently it will later be released as two stand-alone films), that almost completely eschews standard biopic tropes.

It does have a fair share of combat and explosions, especially in Part One, but it’s notably devoid of either sex or uplift. And for a film about garrulous revolutionaries, it doesn’t have much dialogue, either.

Most surprisingly, the film resolutely avoids intimations of Guevara’s inner life. Did he ever doubt the righteousness of his cause? Did he wonder if it was worth the price he would personally have to pay? Did he have second thoughts about the executions he ordered? In other words, was Guevara possessed of a psychology? Not according to this film.

This may read like a negative criticism, but in fact the film is rather absorbing, as long as you take it on its own narrow terms. The filmmakers don’t seem to want to teach us much about Guevara’s life (though I did learn quite a bit about his death), but between the quiet depth of del Toro’s performance and Soderbergh’s craftsmanship behind the camera, Che mostly holds your attention for four-plus hours, even if you often wish it would dig deeper.

Some critics have complained that both parts of the movie tell the same story-of Guevara leading revolutions against corrupt governments-the only difference being that the first half has a happy ending while the second half doesn’t (from the title character’s point of view, at least). There’s some truth to this, but it doesn’t take into consideration that the two halves of the story are told in different ways. Part One jumps between three timelines, while Part Two unfolds chronologically. The more easily distracted among us might say that Part Two covers six months of failed insurgency in something uncomfortably close to real time.

Part One opens on a dinner party in Mexico City, circa 1957. A group of Cuban refugees has been joined by an Argentine doctor, Ernest Guevara, to talk revolution. Other than identifying Guevara’s country of origin, the film gives no biographical detail: nothing about his celebrated motorcycle trip through South America, nothing about his radicalizing experience as a doctor in Jacobo Arbenz Guzman’s doomed Guatemala, where the CIA conspired with local right-wingers to overthrow Guzman’s government, plunging the country into decades of civil war.

The meal begins late because Fidel Castro is late arriving, again. Aside from the constant smoking of cigars, this reference to Castro’s self-privileged sense of time is as close as the film comes to delivering personal, idiosyncratic details about its characters. After the young Castro (Demián Bichir) finally arrives, clean-shaven and unimpressive, the talk turns to the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. If your only image of Castro is that of a leather-lunged orator, you may be surprised at how quietly the conversation is conducted, how soft-spoken and thin-voiced is Bichir’s read. Surely that’s wrong, I thought, until I looked up some Castro clips on YouTube and discovered how precisely Bichir has played him.

Once Guevara signs on to Castro’s “little bit crazy” plan (Guevara’s bemused and appreciative words) to overthrow Batista, the film jumps to Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains and the beginnings of the revolution, and from there to Guevara’s 1964 appearance at the U.N., where he addressed the assembly in the name of the Cuban Revolution. In the Sierra Maestra section, we see Guevara make the transition from doctor to combatant and from combatant to Comandante. In the U.N. scenes we get our only blast of the man’s ideology in a speech denouncing imperialists, especially the U.S., after which he delivers a withering response to criticisms aimed at him by Latin American governments.

Yet del Toro’s Che is not bombastic. He exposes the governments of Venezuela and elsewhere as U.S. lackeys with only a few well-chosen words. In his own mind, and from the film’s point of view, Guevara stands on the moral heights and launches precise thunderbolts at the stooges below.

It risks understatement to note that Soderbergh and del Toro present an uncomplicated view of Guevara, which will no doubt infuriate some viewers. They might not go so far as Sartre, who famously declared Che “the most complete human being of our time,” but he is unambiguously positioned as a hero, if finally a quixotic one. If you don’t arrive at the theater loathing Guevara as the “Butcher of La Cabaña” (the prison where Che the Cuban functionary had many political prisoners executed), you’ll probably find yourself applauding his honesty and strength of character. When Cuban refugees protest Guevara’s arrival at the U.N., the film shows them as an angry mob, and Guevara as a clear-eyed man of history.

One thread ties the U.N. scenes and the guerrilla warfare scenes: Soderbergh’s coolly professional love of procedure. Just as he showed us exactly how to rob impregnable Vegas hotels in the Oceans blockbusters, here he demonstrates how to become a guerrilla and develop winning guerrilla strategies, and even how to address the U.N. General Assembly. Soderbergh seems more interested in the details of U.N. debate protocols (10 minutes for the initial speech, 10 minutes for the responses of other members, 10 minutes for rebuttal) than in ideology.

After jumping between storylines for most of its length, Part One enters an extended sequence during its last 45 minutes or so, when Soderbergh renders a blow-by-blow account of Guevara’s troops taking the Cuban city of Santa Clara in 1959-the victory that caused Batista to flee the country.

Guevara doesn’t take any time to celebrate. He reprimands soldiers for driving “commandeered” long-finned Chevys, telling his men they should walk to Havana before driving stolen cars. And there’s no high-fiving when Che meets Castro. That’s largely because Guevara, more so than Castro, doesn’t see his work as done. Cuba is just a launching pad to global revolution. Del Toro plays Che with such understated strength and transparent integrity that even his overwhelming ambition seems downright noble.

Part Two shows what happened, beginning in 1966, when Guevara, after failed attempts to foment revolution in the Congo and elsewhere, launched his truly quixotic (as in, mad) sortie against the Bolivian government. The cause looks hopeless almost from the start. Che has trouble recruiting soldiers. The religious peasantry is hostile to takeover by atheists. And guerrilla life in the wooded Bolivian highlands is just hard. Guevara and his handful of followers nearly starve.

The contrasts with the Cuban campaign are striking. Cuba was full of rum-swilling, cigar-smoking bonhomie. In Bolivia, Guevara doesn’t have so much as a coca leaf to chew on.

The film conveys such hardships from a certain remove. Again Soderbergh is back to his how-to manual, only this time the lesson plan is “how-not-to.”

Soderbergh has been criticized for leaving out the middle section of what should’ve been a triptych. That is, he ignores Guevara’s years as blood-stained bureaucrat in Havana. Can we honestly evaluate Guevara’s career without seeing him at his worst? If not, does that make Che a fundamentally dishonest film?

Soderbergh has answered this question in interviews by saying he simply wasn’t interested in showing Guevara behind a desk. He only wanted to make a “procedural about guerrilla warfare.”

Wondering if this is really a defensible goal, given the title character’s morally muddled middle history, takes me back to high school, when I argued about Bonnie and Clyde with my English teacher. She remembered the pair as thugs and couldn’t tolerate their being glamorized on film. My basic answer: But it’s a hell of a movie!

You wouldn’t call Che a hell of a movie. It’s too emotionally disengaged for that. We only really get inside Guevara’s head when he’s awaiting his execution. He’s in captivity, and in bad physical condition, looking as woolly as the homeless man that he has in effect become. But when Guevara accepts smokes from one of his guards, and comes oh-so-close to talking the young man into letting him escape, del Toro lets his character’s charisma blaze for the only time in the film. The young soldier is about to free him, then runs out of the room as if he’s just realized he’s come face to face with the devil.

We’re literally in Guevara’s head, seeing the world through his eyes, when he takes the fatal bullets. It’s typical of the film that when the dying Guevara flashes back to the voyage he and Castro made together on the leaky yacht that carried them from Mexico to Cuba at the beginning of their big adventure, the scene is utterly enigmatic. The faces of these two world-historical figures are as inexpressive as any 19th-century portrait sitter holding stiffly still for the exposure.

What did Guevara think about Castro, comfortably ensconced in happy Havana while Che lay dying in the dirt? If Soderbergh and del Toro have any idea, they’re not telling us.

Houston’s David Theis is the author of the novel Rio Ganges.

David Theis is a long-time Houston writer and a longer-time devotee of Mexican food.