Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh unveiled his 4-hour Che Guevara Biopic at the Cannes Film Festival last Thursday. One reviewer described the movie as "maniacally anticipated." Variety hailed it as Cannes’ "most-anticipated" film.
But based on reviews thus far, it looks like Soderbergh blew it. After suffering what some critics described as the film’s "butt-numbing" duration, Variety’s Todd McCarthy branded the movie "defiantly nondramatic" and "a commercial impossibility." New York Magazine calls it, "something of a fiasco." Everyone seemed bored if not actually catatonic while viewing the film. Time’s Richard Corliss described Benicio Del Toro in the starring role as "seemingly sedated." Bloomberg news wrote of the "viewers’ bleary eyes."
These reviewers, as usual, miss the point and bash the director unfairly. Director Stephen Soderbergh said flat-out that the purpose of his movie was, "to give you a sense of what it was like to hang out with this person (Che Guevara)."
Well? What did the reviewers expect? As usual, they know very little about the film’s subject. In fact, Soderbergh has accomplished his goal with bells on. As exhibit one, I submit a sample of Che Guevara’s sparkling conversation:
“The past makes itself felt not only in the individual consciousness — in which the residue of an education systematically oriented toward isolating the individual still weighs heavily — but also through the very character of this transition period in which commodity relations still persist, although this is still a subjective aspiration, not yet systematized.”
Splash some cold water on your face and stick with me for just a little more:
“It is still necessary to deepen his conscious participation, individual and collective, in all the mechanisms of management and production, and to link this to the idea of the need for technical and ideological education, so that we see how closely interdependent these processes are and how their advancement is parallel." These passages come straight from the Che diaries that form the basis of the film’s script.
“I have no home, no woman no parents, no brothers and no friends,” wrote Guevara. “My friends are friends only so long as they think as I do politically.”
To everyone familiar with the real Che Guevara it’s abundantly clear that Soderbergh directed masterfully. He was not giving us Jerry Lee Lewis or John Belushi. No honest and educated reviewer can deny him massive kudus for so expertly transmitting this insufferable dork’s personality and presence to a soon snoring audience.
Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro, who stars as Che and shares production credits, actually had an intriguing and immensely amusing theme if only they’d known how to plumb it. Soderbergh hails Guevara as “one of the most fascinating lives in the last century.” Almost all who actually interacted with Ernesto Guevara (and are now free to express their views without fear of firing squads or torture chambers) know that the The Big Question regarding Ernesto, the most genuinely fascinating aspect of his life, is:
How did such a dreadful bore, incurable doofus, sadist and epic idiot attain such iconic status?
The answer is that this psychotic and thoroughly unimposing vagrant named Ernesto Guevara had the magnificent fortune of linking up with modern history’s top press agent, Fidel Castro, who for going on half a century now, has had the mainstream media anxiously scurrying to his every beck and call and eating out of his hand like trained pigeons. Had Ernesto Guevara De La Serna y Lynch not linked up with Raul and Fidel Castro in Mexico city that fateful summer of 1955 — had he not linked up with a Cuban exile named Nico Lopez in Guatemala the year before who later introduced him to Raul and Fidel Castro in Mexico city — everything points to Ernesto continuing his life of a traveling hobo, panhandling, mooching off women, staying in flophouses and scribbling unreadable poetry.
Not to be outdone in the trained pigeon department, while making their film, Soderbergh and Del Toro repeatedly visited Havana to coo and peck away as anxiously as Herbert Matthews, Dan Rather or Barbara Walters while the regime tossed out its crumbs. Though rarely meeting with the Maximum Leader himself, the filmmakers, on top of relying on Che’s diaries (edited by Fidel Castro) for the script, also obtained recollections from Che’s widow and many of his former underling executioners. These all currently serve as ministers in a totalitarian regime. "We wanted to show the real character" boasts Soderbergh. Absolutely no chance of any hanky panky with the historical record from these sources!
“I met him (Fidel Castro) for about five minutes,” Del Toro said. “He knew about the project and he said to me that he was very happy (I’ll bet!!) that we had spent so much time researching the subject."
"I’m here in Cuba’s hills thirsting for blood," Che wrote his abandoned wife in 1957. "Dear Papa, today I discovered I really like killing," he wrote shortly afterwards. Alas, this killing very rarely involved combat; it come from the close-range murder of bound and blindfolded men and boys.
"When you saw the beaming look on Che’s face as the victims were tied to the stake and blasted apart," said a former political prisoner to this writer, "you knew there was something seriously, seriously wrong with Che Guevara." In fact the one genuine accomplishment in Che Guevara’s life was the mass-murder of defenseless men and boys. Under his own gun dozens died. Under his orders thousands crumpled. At everything else Che Guevara failed abysmally, even comically. Yet Soderbergh and Del Toro skip over these fascinating quotes and Che’s one genuine accomplishment as a revolutionary.
He’s lauded as the century’s most celebrated guerrilla fighter but he never fought in a guerrilla war. "The Guerrilla war in Cuba was notable for the marked lack of military skills or offensive spirit in the soldiers of either side,” that’s military historian Arthur Campbell, in his authoritative, Guerrillas: A History and Analysis. “The Fidelistas were completely lacking in the basic military arts or in any experience of fighting."
“In all essentials Castro’s battle for Cuba was a public relations campaign, fought in New York and Washington.” That’s British historian Hugh Thomas.
Yet Soderbergh and Del Toro, obsessively wary of lapsing into the slightest historical inaccuracy, relied on the Castro regime as primary source — and came up with a shoot-’em up war movie! — albeit an apparently boring one.
He’s lauded as a rebel and free-spirit yet he denounced the very “spirit of rebellion” as “reprehensible”! He boasted that under his watch “individualism must disappear!” This was no idle boast either. Che Guevara co-founded a regime that jailed more of its subjects than Stalin’s and murdered more people in its first three years than Hitler’s in its first six. In 1959, with the help of KGB agents, the man celebrated by the beautiful people at Cannes helped found, train and indoctrinate Cuba’s secret police. “Always interrogate your prisoners at night,” Che ordered his goons. “A man’s resistance is always lower at night.” Today the world’s largest Che mural adorns Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior, the headquarters for Cuba’s STASI- and KGB-trained secret police.
Woody Allen or Quentin Tartatino (both at Cannes this year) might have rolled up their sleeves and made this material interesting, if not the character himself, then perhaps whatever malfunction in brain synapses animate his fans.
Alas, taking on Fidel Castro as agent has its drawbacks, as former colleagues all attest: "Fidel only praises the dead." So prior to whooping up his revolutionary sidekick, Fidel Castro sent him "to sleep with the fishes." "Most of the people I met that knew him," says Del Toro, "when they spoke about him, there was a sense that they were talking about a family member that they cared about with infinite love.”
Indeed, Fidel Castro’s expressions of love for his former sidekick must have misted Del Toro’s eyes.
Too bad Soderbergh and Del Toro didn’t interview the former CIA officers who revealed to this writer how Fidel Castro himself, via the Bolivian Communist party, constantly fed the CIA info on Che’s whereabouts in Bolivia. Including Fidel Castro’s directive to the Bolivian Communists regarding Che and his merry band might have also added drama. "Not even an aspirin," instructed Cuba’s Maximum Leader to his Bolivian comrades, meaning that Bolivia’s Communists were not to assist Che in any way — "not even with an aspirin," if Che complained of a headache.
Alas, utterly starstruck by their subject and slavishly compliant to Fidel Castro’s script and casting calls, all these fascinating plots and subplots flew right over Soderbergh and Del Toro’s heads.
Humberto Fontova [send him mail] is the author of Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. Visit his website.