Friday, January 30, 2009

CHE:Know About It

It’s 4:25 am and I’m still up thinking about the film "Che". It’s been a while since I could say that film gripped me so much that it yanks me from a comfortable, warm bed on one of the coldest nights of the season with a full day ahead of me. I sat through the over 4-hour biopic directed by Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic", "Erin Brokovich", "Ocean’s Eleven") and starring Academy Award Winning Actor Benicio Del Toro playing the role of el Comandante Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and it didn’t drag once for me. In the United States, his image can be sold to you on a t-shirt for $16.99 at Urban Outfitters. For many Cuban and McCarthy-era Americans, Che is a man that helped Fidel Castro lead a revolution that was based on communist, socialist and Marxist ideologies, seen as evil in the 50’s and 60’s. In the United stated this “Red Scare” led to a witch hunt, led by Joseph Raymond McCarthy, that led to nothing but a series of lists of people who were suspected of Communist activity, but never committed any crimes. The group that may have suffered most from these hearings were intellectuals and artists, who were blacklisted and unable to work in their own professions. In Cuba, and in many countries experiencing revolutions and fierce social and political change, he is respected, and regaled as a hero.

Admittedly, I’ve read up on the guy. As a child, raised by a mother and grandmother with leftist inclinations, and born in Puerto Rico, an island that has grappled with it’s political standing since receiving our citizenship in 1917, El Che is as much a part of the Caribbean fabric as sugarcane. My interest in him started early, reading the occasional speech as a high school student and then taking on full texts like the book "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life", by Jon Lee Anderson and other books in both English and Spanish. His evolution from a boy born into an educated, semi-well to do family in Argentina, to doctor to Comandante and his eventual demise in the Jungles of Bolivia is a unique, and interesting story, no matter what your political affiliations are. The events and turning points in Ernesto Guevara’s life are beautifully told as only film can do in "Diarios de Motocicleta" (or "The Motorcycle Diaries") based on the memoirs written on a trip that took Guevara through South America showing him first-hand the disparities between the haves and have-nots, more importantly the exploitation and abject poverty of the indigenous people of the countries he visited.

So when I found out that Soderbergh was in fact going to film a biopic based on Guevara’s revolutionary life, I couldn’t wait. I felt myself feeling the way I did after seeing Platoon in the theaters when I was nine and my mother telling me, “You need to see this. You need to understand” – referring to my father and what he and his fellow soldiers went through during the Vietnam War. Watching this film was a necessity, not something to gingerly watch on a Saturday afternoon. I sat there with an anxiety in my spirit and a critical eye.

So let’s talk a little bit about "Che" as a film. It was shot beautifully mostly in the hand-held style Soderbergh is well known for, adding a visceral dimension. The viewer almost walks alongside El Comandante, Fidel & Raul Castro, and the band of revolutionaries during guerrilla warfare. The flashbacks and interviews done in New York are shot in a style that is reminiscent of grainy black & white television. The only time I was taken out of the story was when I realized that parts of the film were shot in Puerto Rico. Certain vistas were too familiar to me, even mountainsides. And then there was, of course, the song of the coquí that was a dead giveaway, which made me smile, but never took me completely out of the situations that I was witnessing.

Part I, entitled "The Argentine" was my favorite of the two films. The chemistry between the actors, and the beginning, middle, and end of the story are clear. The want is clear. I was surprised by the humor that was injected into little pockets amidst gunfights and the body count. It was truly, beautifully put together.

Part II, entitled "Guerrilla" takes the viewer to Bolivia, where Che unsuccessfully tries to stage a revolution. While the same grit is there, it waned a bit on parts, as attested by the guy sitting next to me who started to snore. There was something missing in the story at that point that I still can’t shake. There was too much waiting. We knew what would happen in the end, but it was prolonged. The viewer isn’t stupid. We can gather that the guerrillas were suffering without seeing it at every turn.

While I respect Soderbergh a great deal, I find that he tends to fall just short of telling it like it is, the whole way through. For example, "Traffic," released in 2000, tells the story of the heroine drug trade between the U.S. and Mexico through very distinct lenses: the traffickers, the DEA, low-level Mexican policemen, the United States Drug Czar and his addict daughter. There is a scene where Caroline Wakefield, played by Erika Christensen is at her bottom, whoring herself out to a dealer for heroine. Now, it’s not that the scene didn’t communicate the low that the character was at. It was really how Soderbergh presented it that I took issue with. The dealer was not only African American, he was also cast as this overly-buff, imposing type, and the sex scene was filmed a little too much like “oh, poor little white girl.” Which took away from what was important in the story and Caroline’s through line. She was already a sympathetic character without having to portray her even more so at the expense of a Black character, which only reinforced a stereotype.

It took the C.I.A. and hundreds U.S. trained Bolivian soldiers to capture Ernesto Guevara. I think Soderbergh handled the U.S. involvement in with kid gloves. While I don’t think he needed to go Oliver Stone conspiracy theorist over it. I think that it should’ve been clearer who the major players were. I also think that Soderbergh really, truly missed an opportunity to make a parallel with what the United States has been involved in doing for the last eight years and beyond! Also, I believe a huge part of the story was missing: Guevara’s family. He was twice married with five children. Soderbergh really only dedicated about ten minutes that, without really delving into what that internal struggle may have been for Guevara. Also, in Part I, Aleida was an outspoken, strong character that carried a gun and fought alongside el Comandante. In Part II, Soderbergh pretty much strips her of any of that identity and paints her as a weak, voiceless wife who's man has gone off to war.

Now having said that, I now have to say that the beauty of this film is not story structure, or what it was missing. I love the way women, while few, are still shown playing major roles in both Cuba and Bolivia. It was wonderful to see the breadth of Guevara’s dedication to his soldiers as he fought with his own severe asthma in tropical climates and steeph mountain climbing. I was pleased to see a man driven by his intellect and ideology, and his willingness to live as if he had already died in order to achieve the goals that he set forth. I’d love to have seen President Bush try to do that in Iraq. Nope, he's too busy cracking jokes, "The WMD's gotta be somewhere, har har har."

What I love most about "Che" is how it took me out of bed at 4:25am, thinking about Aleida March, his second wife and comrade and the children he left behind, one of them just like her father, a Marxist and a doctor; about the revolutionaries of the 20th century that sat, marched, spoke, called to arms, and moved nations. I think about Martin Luther and Coretta Scott-King, I think about Malcolm and Betty Shabazz, I think about Nelson and Winnie Mandela. I think about Barack and Michelle Obama and how they may be able to usher in a new wave of thought and American existence, despite the fact that they're probably wearing bullet-proof vests in order to do so. I think about the sacrifice it takes to change the world and the forces that curtail it. I think about the United States and Bush and how he’s really not that different in action than Guevara. But how he gets to live the rest of his days comfortably in his West Texas ranch, enjoying his wife and children while the body count rises and a tired military fights to feed an ideology he was not competent or intellectual enough to express.

No matter what your political affiliations, leanings, or how you might feel about what Ernesto Guevara stood for, the film Che really invites the viewer to look at what it’s like to walk the walk and talk the talk and what an individual must sacrifice in order to hope to achieve the goal at hand. Whether or not El Comandante was justified in his actions is better left for a discussion amongst willing participants and I believe that Soderbergh designed the film to be that way. It is what it is. Che was who he was and he still lingers in our existence as a murderer to some, or as Nelson Mandela would say "an inspiration for every human being who loves freedom."

-K. Estela Rivera