Behold the Man: Steven Soderbergh's Epic Film Biography of Che
by J. Hoberman
Virginia Quarterly Review
Premiered amid the hurly-burly of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Soderbergh’s $65 million rumination was characterized by a detached objectivity that might well have been approved by Roberto Rossellini; it displayed a virtuoso sweep that could have been envied by Francis Coppola and claimed a subject that surely fascinated Oliver Stone. The concern for verisimilitude might even have been appreciated by its subject. (Soderbergh’s sources were primary: Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and Bolivian Diary.)
Che seemed perhaps a great movie and certainly something no less rare—a magnificently uncommercial folly. For who in 2008 could possibly want an American movie on the minutiae of guerrilla warfare? And so, this undertaking adds another puzzlement to Soderbergh’s enigmatic career. Having more or less put US independent film on the map when Sex, Lies, and Videotape won an award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, the filmmaker has alternated between accomplished commercial flicks (most successfully Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s 11) and pretentious, scruffy narrative experiments. Soderbergh’s 2000 dope opera Traffic came nearest to reconciling these seemingly antithetic modes. But so, in its way, does Che. The first half, known as The Argentine, has the look of classic Hollywood cinema; the second, The Guerrilla, is more rough-and-ready cinéma vérité.
Many initial viewers were confounded to the degree that Che appeared as a non- or even an anti-biopic. Despite a stellar performance by Benicio Del Toro, who had initiated the project some years ago with Soderbergh as producer and Terrence Malick attached as writer and director, Che presents its subject almost entirely as the protagonist in the context of two specific events. Moreover, the director seemed to keep his distance and reserve his judgment. Skillfully didactic, as well as nervily dialectical, this feel-good/feel-bad combat film thus had less in common with the touchy-feely Motorcycle Diaries than with Peter Watkins’s spare, self-reflexive reconstruction of the Paris Commune, La Commune (Paris, 1871). And, while Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers, the most celebrated application of a neo-realist methodology to recent history, might provide another corollary, Soderbergh’s measured formalism—at least at first look—was so pronounced that Che seemed akin to a structuralist extravaganza like Michael Snow’s machine-driven landscape study La Région Centrale.
Since then, Soderbergh has tweaked his movie’s first half in ways that soften its strangeness and blunt its intellectual edge. Most obviously, a number of mock cinéma vérité flash-forwards have been added to The Argentine, enabling the protagonist to address his Anglophone audience with a lightly accented English-language voiceover. Annotating the past with the “present” and tightening the movie’s overall sound/image connections, these inserts do allow for another sort of dialectic, but their presence serves to subtly normalize Soderbergh’s distancing strategy. (Or what was taken to be his strategy. “With all the subtitles, we thought it was Jean-Luc Godard,” a colleague joked.) More crucial is Soderbergh’s shortening of certain choreographed battle scenes and the omission of a five- or six-minute sequence concerning the trial of Lalo Sardiñas which served to demonstrate application of guerrilla justice.
Even so, Che remains a film object—that is, a thing to be experienced. The movie demands to take its time, with both parts taken in at a single sitting. Each half begins with the leisurely contemplation of a map—first Cuba, then Bolivia in the context of Latin America—as if to emphasize the dictatorship of place, rather than the proletariat. Soderbergh’s coolly single-minded meditation on the practice of guerrilla warfare (as well as the creation of militant superstardom and the nature of objective camera work) is at once visceral and intellectual, sumptuous and painful, boldly simplified and massively detailed.
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