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Capturing Myth: Close-Up on Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”

Seesawing between man and myth, Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” is a majestic two-part epic on the timeless icon
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008), shown as The Argentine and Guerrilla, are playing in June and July in the United States.
Half way through Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four-and-a-half-hour epic Che, ABC News journalist Lisa Howard asks the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary how he feels about “being a symbol.” The question ricochets off the sleek interiors of a New York room, 1964—the year Guevara addressed the United Nations on the threat U.S. imperialism posed to world peace. But in Soderbergh’s biopic, it plays over images from January 2, 1959—the day Che, having conquered the city of Santa Clara, raced to Havana to reunite with Fidel Castro and celebrate “the end of the war, and the start of the [Cuban] revolution.” It’s a choice that makes for a peculiar dialectic: a man who by the 1960s had already become a global icon (in Jean-Paul Sartre’s besotted words, “the most complete human being of his times”) asked to return to the days his aura began to take a firmer shape. A myth reminiscing his past (mortal) self; an icon and an icon in-the-making. 
Ever since it world premiered in 2008 in Cannes, first presented in a back-to-back, four-hours-plus “road show” version and then split into its current diptych form, the critical discussion around Che has pivoted by and large on the question whether Soderbergh’s biopic glorifies its eponymous icon. Evidence to back the suspicion abounds. Homing in on Che’s role in the 1956–58 campaign in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra (Che’s first chapter, The Argentine) and on the failed attempt to reproduce the same upheaval in Bolivia and spearhead a pan-Latin American insurgency, circa 1966 to 1967 (Che’s second part, Guerrilla), Soderbergh’s portrait deliberately eschews the atrocious retaliations Guevara waged against counter-revolutionaries in the years that followed U.S.-backed ousting of Fulgencio Batista. Glossing over the executions and tortures perpetrated inside La Cabaña prison and seemingly conjuring up something closer to saint-like figure than a ruthless warrior, there are moments Che echoes the rampant idealism of Walter Salles’ 2004 portrait of Guevara as a young man, The Motorcycle Diaries (a work Soderbergh has often referred to as a prologue to his own), and at times surpasses it in scope—hailing Che as a Simón Bolívar-type hero, a universal messiah. 
But while there is certainly room for criticizing Che for what it chooses to flesh out—and what it keeps hidden—dismissing it for allegedly canonizing its icon is to unwittingly play into Soderbergh’s hands. From the first moment Benicio Del Toro’s Guevara enters the screen—captured from a revering lower angle and in extreme closeups, his face spilling over the frame like something majestic, uncaged—until the last shot of his dead body fastened to a helicopter’s landing skids and flown above the jungle, a physical and symbolic ascent to the heavens, this is a film that’s unmistakably fascinated by its subject. But Che is not a hagiography. It is a film that pivots on a dialectical relationship between man and myth, a majestic and ascetic excursion into the life of a revolutionary who—long before he ascended to a posthumous planetary stardom—had already become an international icon. Seen from this angle, criticizing Soderbergh’s biopic for capturing the glorified clout of Guevara feels somewhat shortsighted, not least because the glorification and romanticization are an integral part of the process of myth-creation Che seeks to capture. Where Lisa Howard asks the revolutionary how he felt about being a symbol, Soderbergh’s epic ponders: how exactly do you capture a man as he becomes one? 
Penned by Peter Buchman (who wrote The Argentine) and Benjamin A. Van Der Veen (who joined Buchman as Guerrilla’s co-writer), Che draws largely from Guevara’s own diaries of his days in the guerrilla. Part one is based on his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War; part two on The Bolivian Diaries. This first-person, present-tense account (amplified by Del Toro’s voiceover, parceling out comments and memories all throughout The Argentine) affords Soderbergh’s biopic a peculiar point-of-view feeling—a memoir couched from the perspective of a man who both witnessed and contributed to the making of History. The Argentine and Guerrilla are action films in the most literal sense of the term—they are films about doing, homing in on men consumed by the urgency of their mission. Guerrillas march, fight, recruit new members (a far more successful enterprise in Cuba than in Bolivia, as it turns out), march and fight on. In a diptych whose two chapters coexist as antinomies—both thematically (The Argentine’s triumphant climax versus Guerrilla’s tragic finale) and stylistically (the Hollywood cinema look of Che’s first part versus the cinéma vérité style of the second)—the dialectic relationship also percolates through the script. Perhaps most evidently in The Argentine, each scene has its parallel, every sequence exists as tessera of a sprawling mosaic, an ongoing conversation. As delegates from Central America criticize Cuba and Guevara from the ivory tower of the U.N. New York headquarters, Che cuts to an air raid on Che’s guerrilla base in Cuba six years prior. No sooner has Che addressed his opponents than Soderbergh returns to October 1958, the guerrillas heading to conquer the town of Las Villas. 
There’s an interesting parallel to be made between the way Soderbergh relishes in detailing the insurgents’ strategies and the enthusiasm he’d put into documenting the picaresque antics of Clooney’s thieves in the Ocean’s franchise—a keen eye for the step-by-step procedures that bridges the gap between Che and an oeuvre as prolific as it is protean. And there is also a peculiar Herzogian physicality to Soderbergh’s filmmaking. Shooting for The Argentine and Guerrilla began in July 2007 and in reverse order: first came Che’s second part (shot in Spain) and then the first (Puerto Rico and Mexico). A relatively small budget for an epic so vast and an outrageously tight shooting schedule—39 days allotted for each chapter—placed Soderbergh under all sorts of pressure. “What interested me most was the process and the physical difficulty,” he told Film Comment’s Amy Taubin in 2008: “in the case of Cuba, these people slept outside for two years. Just being out there made you appreciate the mental and physical stamina it took to do what they did.” 
To watch Che is, to some fundamental extent, to be made aware of the painstaking efforts that went into its production, and in turn, grasp the duress endured by the guerrillas who took to the jungle and spent years fighting and resisting therein. This is a film that trails behind people struggling to survive in a rugged environment, and struggles with them in the process. It's a majestic, anfractuous, and restless march, as visually mesmerizing as it is emotionally draining. Shot by Soderbergh (under the name of Peter Andrews, a pseudonym he’d first adopted while serving as his own cinematographer in Traffic), Che was filmed with a RED—what was then a new sturdy digital camera prototype that offered great flexibility and accentuated the guerrilla-style, rough-and-ready aesthetics. Part one’s vistas don The Argentine a majestic, sprawling aura; Guerrilla’s handheld camerawork and narrower 1.78:1 format achieve the opposite, amplifying the sense of confinement as the Bolivian troops circle the insurgents, until their leader’s capture.
And while Che steers well clear of Guevara’s life beyond the jungle (references to his sentimental liaisons, for one thing, are only touched in passing) this remains a film of minutiae, a day-by-day account of guerrilla warfare as it is experienced by a man who’s himself framed as a multifaceted, multi-character persona. There’s Che the teacher, the man who insisted all his soldiers should be literate and taught them how to read and write in between battles. Che the doctor, dispensing treatments with the same selfless generosity Gael Garcia Bernal had poured into Salles’ own biopic. Che the alien, the Argentine who struggled to exorcise a foreigner complex during and well beyond his victorious Sierra Madre campaign—a man of, but not from, the Cuban people. And there’s Che the vulnerable, the guerrilla leader who suffered from asthma and wheezed through the last stretch of his Bolivian campaign, an endless physical plight that dons the last thirty minutes of Guerrilla the feeling of watching a martyrdom in the making. 
All these versions coexist in Del Toro’s staggering performance. To the question, “why Che?” Soderbergh has often replied “his will,” and Del Toro heeds the call with career-high bravado. His Guevara is less the portrait of a personality and more the embodiment of an indomitable willpower. And while it is true the sheer size of Che’s aura feels most evident in those obsequious black-and-white 1964 New York segments, the man’s charisma and ineffable charm thrum to life when Del Toro is deep in the jungle, and the performance is at its most self-effacing. He becomes Guevara, not just in the physical sense of the transformation (however bafflingly uncanny the real-life Guevara and Del Toro may be, both as young and clean-shaven proto-revolutionaries and in their world-weary last Bolivian days) but in the far more radical sense that sees the actor dissolving into the historical figure. Writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, J. Hoberman aptly billed Soderbergh’s “a film object (…) a thing to be experienced, [which] demands to take its time.” And indeed, to submit to Che is to witness a man’s exhausting, maddening, and doomed rise and fall—an arc that skyrockets upward to victory in Cuba, and downward to annihilation in Bolivia. 
Che is the story of a tragedy, and that the gap between audience and myth is eventually brought to a close is very much courtesy of Del Toro’s ability to make Guevara’s plight, if not relatable, at least unbearably vivid. Where detractors of the historical figure will read this proximity as an inexcusable beatification, there is something much more subtle and complex at play here. Soderbergh’s Che is humanized, in the sense of an otherworldly figure stripped of its glorious mantle and returned to his mortal dimension. This is why The Argentine’s narrative scaffolding—with its constant crisscrossing between New York and Cuba, between myth in the making and consolidated iconis so illuminating, and why the fawning question Howard poses is so crucial, for it lays bare the dialectic that sustains Soderbergh’s project—the portrait of a man who, long before his self-sacrifice, seesawed between mortality and myth. 
And while Del Toro’s Guevara may well try to eschew Howard’s flattery (“a symbol of what?” he first eludes her question), the answer he eventually provides underlines a clear degree of self-awareness, an understanding of what the struggle meant beyond the confines of the jungle it took place in. “The only thing I can tell you is that we were very aware that we represented the hopes of the unredeemed America, and all eyes (…) were fixed upon us.” Perceptively, Soderbergh captures this sense of distancing through shot composition. Save for the 1964 New York sequences, Del Toro is seldom filmed alone—almost always appearing in between fellow guerrillas, and yet positioned slightly apart from them, evoking someone at once thrust in the midst of the action and yet somewhat distanced from it, a warrior and a strategist. The push and pull dynamic dissolves in Guerrilla. The voiceovers uttered from the comforts of a New York room are gone. So is the triumphant aftertaste that accompanied the chronicle of the Sierra Maestra campaign. A feeling of inevitable doom permeates Che’s journey across the Andes. Dialogues between the revolutionary and his guerrillas are reduced to murmurs, Alberto Iglesias’ score injecting tension into the silence. It’s the tale of a protracted suicide that culminates with a chilling point-of-view of the revolutionary's last breath, bringing Soderbergh's dialectic to a harrowing finale—as the end of Che’s calvary coincides with his sublimation into a timeless myth.

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