The Power of Political Personality

Watching Steven Soderbergh's Che as Obama begins his presidency was a curious experience -- a chance to ponder both the power of personality and the seductive notion that change can be embodied in one individual. Ernest "Che" Guevara was of a different moment, of course -- the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary was an uncompromising man more interested in blowing up bridges than in building them, more interested in war-tinged rhetoric than in that of service.

Che earned his revolutionary stripes in his campaign, alongside Fidel Castro, to liberate Cuba from the despotic U.S.-backed leader Fulgencia Batista. His record in the wake of peace is spottier, however -- he had disastrous turns as the commander of La Cabana prison, where he was in charge of purging Batista's ranks; as head of Cuba's National Bank; and as the minister of industry. He left behind those positions to foment revolution in other countries, including the Congo and Mozambique -- victory in Cuba seemed conditional and fraught with the cowardice of compromises. He was a Byronic hero to the end, and as essayist Alma Guillermoprieto chronicles in "The Harsh Angel," her scathing, poetic dissection of Che's legacy, he left behind a near cult of martyrdom and death in the movements he inspired throughout Latin America.

Che's image has become somewhat divorced from his complicated past, thanks to the iconic photograph snapped by Alberto "Korda" Diaz Gutierrez at a mass funeral. The image, known as "Guerrillero Heroico," now adorns T-shirts, posters, and advertising, and is perhaps one of the most widely reproduced photographic images in the world. For those who still idolize Che and the gaze of sorrow, purpose, and action captured in that photo, he represents a purity of conviction, a belief in endless (and ultimately unsustainable) revolution. But such men are symbols for a reason, perhaps because the measure of reality does not quite match up to dreams -- theirs or our own.

In light of Che's larger-than-life image, Soderbergh makes an intriguing decision to focus on the grainy, everyday texture of two of Che's battlefield campaigns. Che opened briefly last year in a special "road show" version for Oscar consideration, clocking in at a whopping four-plus hours. Shown now in two parts, the film focuses on the successful battle to divest Cuba of Batista in Che: Part One, and in Che: Part Two, the unraveling of Che's misguided mission to liberate Bolivia, which resulted in his capture and execution by the CIA-backed military.

In Part One, Soderbergh cuts battlefield scenes with black-and-white faux-archival footage of Che addressing the United Nations and coping with journalist interviews and fawning fans. As the revolution was being built, so was the image of the revolutionary. Part Two is the Cuban campaign in dreadful rewind -- tactical errors, comrades felled by bullets, and worst of all, a peasant class that refuses to join a cause fought in their name.

Che is that uncommon thing -- the precise epic, every detail saturated in verisimilitude, the whole as carefully constructed as a miniature ship in a bottle. The films are packed with endless dates and details -- it's lucky that Smell-o-Vision never caught on, otherwise the director probably would have assaulted viewers' nostrils with Eau de Gamy Revolutionary. Che was not fond of baths -- as a boy, his nickname was "Chancho" or "pig," and rebel life surely did not grant much time for bourgeois activities like bathing.

Soderbergh is obsessed with process -- as his slick Oceans Umpteenth series reveals, he is consumed more with the how of a heist than the why of it. This approach enables Che to avoid the banal medley structure of most biopics, along with the psychologizing that reduces subjects to a grab bag of trauma and redemptive uplift. For a while, it's fascinating -- Soderbergh depicts the revolution as an unglamorous affair that consists of organizing guard-duty shifts and refereeing squabbles between troops, and Benecio del Toro's Che presides over it all in a squinty, distant version of his usual charisma. But after a while, the films become an existential drag, especially by the end of the grim Part Two.

Even in the exuberant Part One, Soderbergh's so invested in the minutiae of process that he denies his viewers the satisfaction of seeing the triumphant rebels enter Havana. A daring choice -- perhaps an illustration of Che's belief in resistance without end and in the fact that this self-willed individual never became the "new man" he so passionately wanted to embody. But also a taxing experience for the viewer, who may wish for the middlebrow conventions of climax after so many days in the forest with Che and his band of hairy men.

Despite the forced-march feel of the films, Che intrigues on the structural level. The films' diptych set-up presents a dialectic that would have pleased its subject -- and reflects Che's own contradictions. After all, Che is the man who once said that "the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love" but also that "hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machines." Where his movement was once a sensitive, organic response to the times and the desires of the people, it became ossified and estranged from the masses for which he claimed to be fighting.

Che is best appreciated as an enigma caught between twin urges, poised on the brink of calamitous action. Soderbergh does a masterful, if grueling, presentation on how these tensions played out in Che's everyday decisions in battle and has created an intriguing cautionary tale for pinning so much hope on only one man. Even within the restricted scope of Che, Soderbergh makes clear the problems of a cult of personality separated from the people, and a revolution that has ceased to be responsive.

Our times begin where Che's ended, however -- it's difficult to imagine him leading a government and not a war, harder still to imagine him as an old man, a plump apparatchik dandling grandchildren bored of his jungle tales. Luckily for him, he died before that could happen and before he could know what his image would become -- wrested from its revolutionary roots, a handsome man with an arresting gaze, haunted by demons others had forgotten. The communist has become the ultimate commodity, even the butt of the Argentinean joke: Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué," or "I have a Che T-shirt and I don't know why." Che was unable to achieve his dream, but it was no matter -- the people made a new man of him in the end.

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