Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Che

che-movie-poster2This review is based on both parts of Soderbergh’s film taken as a whole. 

Navigating Steven Soderbergh’s Che is an almost impossible task for the lover of the conventional biopic (a group I am not a member of). Yet judging Che against those biopic standards is perhaps essential for its study in a collapsed man. The almost unanimous criticism of the film – that it gives us little insight into Che Guevara the man – is both entirely astute and indefatigably myopic. It is simultaneously missing the point and exactly the point. Watching Che, it is almost impossible to decode the seeming cipher of a man it presents, but “impossible to decode” is a neutral claim that many viewers take to be a negative or a problem. It is a feature that is assumed a flaw. Their opinion isn’t incorrect so much as it is, in my opinion, limited, the casualty of an individualistic Hollywood formula that threads the membrane between character psychology and maturity so thin that one would be ostracized simply for claiming that there may just be other pathways to truth beyond burrowing into the subcutaneous traumas and fixations of the man whose name adorns the movie poster. That’s because Che isn’t merely a biopic but a thought experiment. Viewed from this angle, it isn’t primarily a study of a person so much as an essay on the nature of revolution.

Or it might be an interrogation of an icon. Withheld at a cruel, cool distance (in a direct refutation to trivial tripe like The Motorcycle Diaries, also on Guevara), Che is a tactician’s take on romance, a pragmatic and hard-headed puzzler about a man who seems to have no interior realm beyond his lifestyle as a cog in the machine, his place in a larger revolutionary force sweeping the world. As opposed to lodging a complaint against the film for its failure to transcend Guevara’s external façade and locate the soul of the man, consider the hubris of supposing that a film should have total access to its subject. Soderbergh is onto something here; Che is more than a man, and Che is more than a story of one. It’s a depleted battle-ground, a tapestry of mostly anti-cathartic moments that intentionally seem to add up to significantly less than a complete portrait. Che Guevara cannot hold the film, so it spills out horizontally over the sides. It’s the antithesis of Soderbergh’s very good, more populist Erin Brokovich, which was the tidy gem to Che’s wide-load that spreads out and tears itself to tatters.

Temptation asks us to lambast the film for reducing itself to the external facts rather than the interior psychology of the man – giving us Herzog’s accountant’s truth rather than his ecstatic truth – but Che also criticizes the idea of ecstatic truth. It reproduces revolutionary war as a colossal slog, a rote exercise in pragmatic and impersonal functionality, in quotidian workaday facts and figures, and it reflects the spirit of a man who was, in this vision at least, relatively happy to participate in rebellion if it meant he could define his life in precisely that ruthlessly practical and motion-oriented mode. We don’t see the man because, at least Che thinks, the man wanted to subsume the man to the forces around him.

Benicio Del Toro’s astonishingly controlled performance of ambivalent motions and blank expressions is defiantly non-melodramatic, piecing together an image of a functionary person for whom minutiae and motion rather than spirit and ideology was the way of life. We don’t learn what makes Che “tick”, critics tell me, but what if we learn that ticking is itself what makes Che go? That he seems reduced in ideological spirit paints a picture of a man who almost seems afraid of his interior realm, shockingly unable to consider the implications of his actions or even why he fights in the first place. He is a man who lives, according to Soderbergh at least, to get from place to place, to move from scene to scene without much comment or critical faculty. Castro, the ideologue, might have been the subject for a more conventional film about fighting for a cause, a persona around which a film could be wrapped. Guevara, here, is a self-consciously impersonal non-persona who might just prefer the life of a machine.

We critics adore “boots-on-the-ground” verisimilitude, but Soderbergh’s Che is also a critique of the idea that we can see the bigger picture or make any argument when our boots are so firmly in motion. For Soderbergh’s Guevara, praxis isn’t a pathway to theory or ideology; praxis is the end in and of itself. Thus, he seems entirely out-of-sorts when his revolution is successful, as though he never actually stopped to consider what it would mean for his ostensible cause to succeed and for him to adopt a position in a functioning socialist world. He’d rather be working to achieve a new world, and the film implies that the particularities of that world might be beside the point for him. The film’s tragedy – and it is a tragedy – is the possibility that fighting for a cause might mystify rather than clarify the cause, that the ideology of a movement might sputter out while paradoxically being implemented into concrete.

Perhaps this is why everyone forgot the film almost immediately. It seems frighteningly and alienatingly apolitical, but it carries undertows of necessary observation about the state of leftism in the world, functioning as a political statement of a kind almost by ruthlessly scrubbing out any explicit commentary on government or politics, by imagining a world in motion that forgets where it is going and, also, why it is moving in the first place. For Guevara himself, the personal calamity he suffers isn’t death so much as a state of non-existence, of non-life, of trying to actualize a world that he would implicitly rather not finish actualizing. His quest is necessarily Sisyphean, itself a meaningful exploration not only of socialism but capitalism and a modern America where the thirst for more and the persistent and pernicious thread of self-betterment in society snuffs out the possibility of contentedness or self-appreciation in the first place.

Che is such a viable counterpart to the foundational assumptions of the biopic genre that it seems thoroughly essential regardless of political affiliation. It is radically a film about motions rather than reasons, whereas nearly every American biopic in existence fetishizes reasons to the point where every actionable character seems to have one life-shaping event from their childhood that sets in motion everything in their being. Rather than revealing such a moment, Che speaks via its absences, via its inability to consider political theory or comment on the nature of a cause when it is so wrapped up in its perpetual-motion machine of thoroughly exhausting moments. A year later, the more conventional (and still great) The Hurt Locker was a more explicit commentary on war as an addiction, but Che’s punishing 4 ½ runtime is a more adroit reflection of addiction past the point where a rollercoaster of “highs” and “lows is even a viable analogy.

Maybe Che is an unsolvable film, but legitimately so, not a Tarantino-esque or Nolan-ian labyrinth of secrets where the answer is simply a consolation prize for the hours of rational filmic mental gymnastics one spends extracting it. Che is a film about being, experiencing, rather than thinking or mounting an argument, and that, at least in its mind, expresses an untouchable truth about Guevara that no conventional interiorization could have. It is an opaque film for a man who seems inhospitable to translucence.

Score: 9/10

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