Revolution in shades of gray

Steven Soderbergh talks about his maddening, messy near-masterpiece "Che," an aloof and ambiguous portrait of the much-loved, much-hated Marxist icon.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 12, 2008 11:30AM (EST)

IFC Films/Teresa Isasi

Director Steven Soderbergh, left, on set with Benicio Del Toro and executive producer Gregory Jacobs.

Steven Soderbergh has never lacked for ambition, or for the eclectic range of his tastes. It's not easy to fathom how the same guy could have made remakes of the Rat Pack heist flick "Ocean's Eleven" and Andrei Tarkovsky's enigmatic sci-fi classic "Solaris," or how directing George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in "Out of Sight" fits with directing a cast of nonprofessional unknowns in "Bubble."

Even by Soderbergh's standards, a two-part, four-hour movie about Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara -- shot fast, on digital video, with not enough money, in a language the director and much of the cast do not speak -- seemed like a foolhardy endeavor. And perhaps it was. "Che" is a prickly, not terribly friendly picture that could well go down in history as one of the legendary "film follies" of all time (to borrow critic Stuart Klawans' phrase). It's neither a hagiography of the Marxist hero nor an attempt to dynamite his legend; Soderbergh has effectively pissed off left-wing critics, right-wing critics and a certain number of mainstream viewers who just wanted a conventional, psychological-realist biopic.

Instead, "Che" is something closer to the naturalistic novel or documentary journalism. Benicio del Toro gives an irresistible performance that won him the best-actor prize at Cannes (and an Oscar nomination is certainly possible), but his Guevara is an enigmatic, coldly charismatic figure, not a man likely to give up his secrets to those who knew him well, let alone an audience watching him from the vantage point of posterity. We follow him on the way up in the late '50s -- in Part 1, subtitled "The Argentine" -- as he and the young Fidel Castro wage an exciting rebellion against the corrupt, American-supported regime of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. And we see him on the way down -- in Part 2, "Guerrilla" -- in 1967, as Guevara leads a doomed campaign to export revolution to Bolivia, unsupported by local workers or peasants. (Even the Bolivian Communist Party was against him.)

What we don't get is any kind of interpretation. Soderbergh asks us to view Che's actions, his great triumph on a tropical island and his ultimate defeat in the chilly misery of a canyon in the Andes foothills, and then to draw our own conclusions about what they mean -- or, even more difficult, to debate that question honestly with each other. I wrote a lengthy response to "Che" right after seeing it at Cannes last spring, and I'm sticking with most of that, especially the idea that it's a sprawling, messy, huge accomplishment that's far better than anything I thought Soderbergh could get out of this material.

I wrote at the time that, rather than striking an ideological stance, Soderbergh was trying to distill a "grand process of birth and extinguishment, one that produced a complicated legacy in which John McCain, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro are still enmeshed." It's a movie that deliberately tries to polarize the audience, to drive people on all sides nuts by refusing to sanctify or condemn one of the most loved and most hated figures of the 20th century. As Soderbergh observed when I got him on the phone last week, once upon a time if you made a movie that got people fighting like a bag full of mangy cats, that was seen as healthy. Today it's more important to be liked. "Che" is not likely to be liked.

You must have known that making a film about Che Guevara was a little bit like sticking your hand into a hornets' nest. Why did you decide to do it?

Well, that's part of the reason. Because when you've been as fortunate as I have, you have to seek out some things that are going to be difficult, or at least that are going to push you into places that might be uncomfortable. So, you know, eight years ago when we were doing "Traffic," and Laura Bickford, the producer, and Benicio approached me about getting involved with "Che," I said yes, sensing that it would be difficult or ugly. But that was, you know, not a reason to say no.

Right. I'm a little uncertain about the history of this project. Is there a relationship between this project and the one that was proposed quite a number of years ago with Terrence Malick as the director?

Yeah. What happened was I was on for a couple years. Terry came on as a writer and then I suggested if he wanted to segue into directing it that I would happily step aside and so I did and he took over the project for a couple years. Then we got into this weird situation where the money finally came together [for "Che"] right at the point where the money finally came together for Terry to do "The New World." So I got a call saying, "Would you jump back on this to keep the money from going away?"

What had happened in the interim -- because when I left the project, the movie was only about Bolivia -- was my perspective on it had shifted. And I felt, returning to the project, that Bolivia wasn't enough. That Bolivia in fact didn't make much sense unless you saw Cuba, and while we're at that, why don't we go to New York [during Guevara's visit to the United Nations in 1964]? And while we're in New York, why don't we think about going to Mexico City and seeing Che meet Fidel Castro? Like, the thing just started ballooning.

It was still, for a long time, one script. And it was becoming really unwieldy. And worse than that, because it was so long, we were still trying to make it into one film, or one normal-length film. The themes were really, really short, and you really couldn't go into any detail about anything and it started to feel like a two-hour trailer for a four-hour movie. And that's when I suggested busting it in half. When we did that, all the solutions kind of rose to the surface. And the problems that we were dealing with in terms of detail and rhythm got solved when you could just bifurcate the whole thing.

My attitude was like, "Look, in nature, when a cell gets too big, it divides in order to survive. That's what we've got here. That's what we have to do." And I think, in retrospect, it was the right thing to do. Now I look at it and wish we'd just gone to HBO and done 10 hours. I really do, because there's still so much stuff that was interesting to me that we just couldn't do. I mean, there's a whole other movie, at least, to deal with: His time in Cuba [after the revolution], and especially his time in the Congo, which is fascinating.

Well, there's a kind of symmetry between the two films, at least from my viewing of it. Was that your intention?

Yeah, I mean there's supposed to be a diptych, I think is the phrase. Sort of a two-framed, or two-sided image in which neither one is totally complete without the other. And certainly my approach to them aesthetically is very different. The feel of them is very different.

Part of that results from the voice in his diaries, because Che wrote about his experiences in the Cuban revolution years after he had experienced it. So I was looking for the visual equivalent of the outcome never really being in question. Everybody knows they won the Cuban revolution, so there wasn't any suspense there. What's interesting -- to me, anyway -- are the details of how they did it. And the voice in his diary is one that's sort of looking back on a very successful period in his life. So the style of the film is more classical, more like a Hollywood movie. It's a wider frame, more traditional music. It's a more optimistic movie.

The second film is 180 degrees away from that, as is the diary, which he kept contemporaneously during the campaign, and which obviously lacks the sort of macro point of view that the first journal had. As a result, you feel much more isolated. The sense of dread is much more intense. It's kind of a slow-motion tragedy, you begin to realize. And I wanted the aesthetic to reflect that as well, where the shots are not as clean. The camera is moving a lot, the colors aren't as vibrant. The whole thing just feels much more forbidding.

You may be sick of talking about the politics of this film, if you see that it has any, at this juncture. But you've gotten a certain amount of stick for not putting in some of the things that Che's most ardent critics would like to see in the film: especially the post-revolutionary period in Cuba, when he was part of the government and there were executions, the suppression of dissent, the oppression of homosexuals and lots of other things that right-thinking people possibly don't approve of. I felt like that criticism was oddly off point, because all the negative things you might want to believe about this guy are actually in your film.

They are. It's a matter of proportion, and for people who are anti-Che, there's really no amount of bad behavior that is ever going to satisfy them. All I can say is, based on the period that I chose to portray, that this is what I came away with, having done the research that I did, having read everything pro and con about him. The issues that everybody -- it's mostly about La Cabaña [the Havana prison where Guevara presided over somewhere between 150 and 200 executions], which is where most people have an issue with Che and Cuba.

The real question that you have to ask is: Given what we know, given that it's publicly known what happened during that period after the revolution, does the character as portrayed in the film seem like he's capable of doing that stuff? And my answer to that is: Absolutely. If you go and read some of the details of what went on at La Cabaña after seeing our film, you wouldn't go, "Oh my God, I can't believe this." You'd go, "Yeah, I believe that. Yeah, I believe that guy I saw in the movie would do that." And that's really the issue.

I don't think the movies are sentimental at all. Half the people that see them attack us for being cold. How am I sanctifying this guy by making a movie that's cold? My impression of him was -- "warm" was never a word that I heard anybody say, that we interviewed, anybody that knew him. He was a somewhat aloof, very ideologically driven guy. Part of the reason it took him so long to become a part of the group in Cuba was because, in comparison to the Cubans, he was sort of autocratic, almost German. You know, Argentineans consider themselves to be the highest evolution of Spanish-speaking cultures. They bring a lot of attitude to the table.

You know, this could be one of the last interviews I ever give, because I'm going to Miami this week. It was great talking to you! But you know, I know what's coming, and I stand by the movie. I think it's -- look, I'm not Latino. I don't have a vested interest in making him look one way or another. I had absolute freedom to make the movie exactly the way I wanted it. I got access to everything I needed without anybody telling me what I could do or couldn't do. And God knows you should never trust an artist. This is my impression, based on all the people I spoke with and all the research I did.

You just alluded to the critics who say the movie is cold. I've read reviews that say it doesn't have the emotional beats, or the conventional structure, that the person expected to encounter in a biographical motion picture. To me, those things were generally a positive -- you're definitely trying to do something different with the form -- but some viewers may find it off-putting for exactly that reason.

Oh, sure. I knew that going in. I just, I can only make what I want to see. And I had no interest in the meaning of it -- or, I had no interest in proposing what things mean. What I wanted to show you was, in this case, four hours and 20 minutes of what some guy did. If you can't walk away from that with a pretty good idea of who he was and what motivated him, then I don't know what to say. All of these things -- we didn't invent anything. All of these things occurred pretty much in that form. And I'm a believer in using actions as an indicator of someone's beliefs, as opposed to what they say.

Wasn't it Scott Fitzgerald who said, "Action is character"?

Yeah. This is a guy who was very active. And so, I feel like I could never -- he didn't live a conventional life. It didn't seem to me that the conventional approach was going to work or do justice to what he did do. Yeah, it doesn't have the typical setup and payoff structure that you see in a lot of biographical films because I really wanted to do two specific periods of time in as much detail as possible, in the hopes that that would conjure an ethos that would make sense to people.

But the bottom line is: It's not a recruitment film. I'm not suggesting that people should do what he did. What I would like them to do is come out of the theater and just ask themselves: "Is there anything in my life that I feel that way about? Is there anything that I would engage at that level to see happen, or to bring to fruition?" That's what was interesting to me about him, about his politics. The absolute, total engagement, and the will. And the fact, another thing that makes him unusual, that he was an atheist. A lot of people who have this messianic belief in something often call upon a higher power, not only for strength for themselves, but as an indication of why other people should follow them. He didn't have that.

I guess for a Marxist, the higher power is history.

Yeah, or injustice. When you have somebody who's that intensely passionate, and the power does not extend beyond human scale, in their mind, that's interesting. You can't get a guy running for mayor who doesn't talk about God now, at least in our country.

It's fascinating to me that we still can't talk about the revolutionary politics of the 20th century without getting hot under the collar, on all sides of the issues, and calling each other names. You would think these debates were in the past now, but evidently they're not.

Well, it's because of the dogma. If we're going to solve any of this shit, we've got to start being agnostic about data. About what works and what doesn't work. Six months ago we had a lot of people who thought this economy was working! You have to look at available data and not bring your personal belief system to it. There are several different political ideologies that can have positive results, but it usually ends up being a blend.

China is a communist country that has adopted certain principles of the free-market economy. They're able to do certain things that we will never be able to do, and that could come back and bite us. They can move quickly in a certain direction, to solve a problem, in a way we can't. They can say, "Tomorrow we're all driving on this side of the road, because we've determined that will save us billions of dollars." We can't do that. We can't fix anything.

I have this whole theory: I'm a believer in presidential power. In fact, I'm a believer in extreme presidential power, for a shorter term. I think the presidential term should be three years, but you get to do whatever you want to do, as long as it doesn't violate the Constitution. You get three years to do your worst, to turn this place upside down. If you screw it up, you're out.

Well, that's an interesting proposal.

Isn't it? Don't you think that has a really good shot?

Oh, sure. While we're talking about dictatorial leadership, I understand you made this movie really fast under extremely difficult conditions. Talk about how you got your actors to rise to the challenge.

I basically told them, "You're on your own. Any dream you may have had of a connected, warm, emotional relationship with your director is just going to be impossible. We're going to have to move so fast and we have so much to do that you guys are going to have to band together. I'm not going to be able to help you." And they did it. They realized that if they didn't come together to support each other they were going to have a very lonely, frustrating experience.

It wasn't a bad thing, it just was what it was. I literally didn't have time to talk to people. And that includes Benicio.

Benicio is just great and has been getting all the ink. But I was also really impressed with Demián Bichir, the young Mexican actor you cast as Fidel Castro in the first part of the film.

That was so crucial. When we found him, Benicio and I were so relieved. If he doesn't work, the whole first movie basically doesn't work. There are so many ways for that to go wrong and Demián does it in a way that's so fun to watch. It's not an impression. I can't imagine what we would have done without him. I could just watch him for hours.

The way you shot this film, by using a lightweight HD video camera but having the results look the way they do -- like a big-budget, big-screen movie -- has been described as another kind of revolution. Maybe the real revolution is that most audiences will never know.

Right, I think they won't. Yeah, that camera is definitely going to change everything, and it's improved drastically even since then. But as I keep saying to people, you still have to have a script. A lot of people will see it on film anyway, and it looks very filmy. For me, the ease of using the camera and the size of it were a dream come true. It enabled me to move quickly and still get the lush imagery that I wanted. In terms of the audience, I mean, it's a great benefit, but kind of a hidden benefit.

You talked earlier about the differences between the two films. One of the biggest differences is just topography. You've got the tropical forests and plains of Cuba in the first film. It's warm and sunny. Then we're in the foothills of the Andes, in these gloomy deciduous forests where it's cold and wet and pretty unpleasant to be sleeping outdoors.

Just in general, it's not as fun. We shot that second part first, and in fact we shot it backwards. We started shooting the ravine battle, where Che is captured, and that was a real bucket of cold water in the shorts, let me tell you. We went out and hiked down this 500 foot ravine and there we were. "OK, this what we said we were going to do!" But the good news was once we got out of there alive we had the end of the film. Within 10 days of beginning to shoot I had seen the last half-hour of the film and I felt good about it. I felt like the ending was going to work. So that calmed me down a little bit.

And how do you feel about the reaction so far? I mean, it's been all over the map, but you must have expected that.

Yeah. I mean, it's supposed to be debated. If everybody liked it, I'd feel like we made a mistake. It has to be challenging in its form and in its ideas. That was the point of it. Our premiere at Cannes actually went exactly the way I wanted it to. I wanted it to go there and detonate, and that's what it did. There was a lot of argument. You know, it's unfortunate -- that used to be considered a good thing, back in the golden age of American films, from '66 to '76. When you made a movie that polarized people, that was seen as a positive. And now any movie that doesn't receive unified acclaim is viewed as a failure. That's really too bad, because a lot of my favorite stuff is very polarizing.

When I think about your films and your career, you're all about that period from '66 to '76, aren't you?

Oh yeah. All the secrets are there.

When you talk about wishing you'd made this as a 10-hour film for HBO, my only real regret about this movie is that we don't get to see Che's visit to New York as its own movie. Going to all those fancy cocktail parties with Manhattan liberals and berating world leaders at the U.N.

I know, it's pretty wild. Just imagining him at those parties is pretty funny. The importance of that, for me, was that it's a really organic way for him to talk about his ideas, instead of having him stand up in the jungle and expound about politics. This was the place where he had to go sell the ideas of the Cuban revolution. And other voices get heard; all these representatives from other countries get to say all the things about Cuba that people are still saying, and he has to answer.

I leave it to other people to figure out what it means, that we live in a country where people are allowed to stand up and say that. I don't have to do anything other than show that for you to extrapolate the difference between our country and other countries. This is when you get into these arguments about ideology where I just throw up my hands and say, "Look, it's all there. You just have to be paying attention."

"Che" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles for a special one-week engagement as a single film, with an intermission and a "collectible program." It opens Jan. 9 in roughly 25 cities as two separate films, "Che Part 1: The Argentine" and "Che Part 2: Guerrilla," with wider national release to follow. On Jan. 21 it will be available on demand via IFC In Theaters, on many cable TV systems.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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