It’s been almost a decade getting this puppy out the gates. I’ve had my eye on this project for some time — back when there were 3 competing projects in Hollywood — Terrence Malick, Brett Ratner, and Steven Soderbergh. Brett’s project fell off. Then Terrence Malicks script was going to directed by Soderbergh. I dont know the details that followed, but Soderbergh’s screenwriter eventually became Peter Buchman (Eragon, Jurassic Park lll)
Being in the magazine industry, word starts to spread really fast 1 year before theatrical release with magazine editors in-the-know who screen it at Festivals. Che screened at Cannes and Toronto Film Fest this year. I asked and asked and asked everyone I knew about what they thought. They all shrugged their shoulders and shook their head. After enough “dead-air” and “non-opinion”, I just assumed the movie sucked.
I was even convinced that HBO’s Entourage subplot of Medellin was a parallel interpretation of Hollywoods futile attempt to follow an epic South American character, waste millions of dollars, earn too much hype, and make a bomb film that would garner boo’s at Cannes. Was Che the real Medellin?
The result? The Che epic is a 4+ hour film. The good news is the whole film is realistically spoken in Spanish with English subtitles (unlike Andy Garcia’s The Lost City where 1950’s Cubans are speaking in English… As if!)
And NO, Benicio’s imitation is not Vincent Chase’s bad Escobar imitation. Benicio’s performance is career-making. For the first time ever, I was able to let go and follow the story because in essence, Benicio BECAME Che. Period. I realized that the reason I have not heard word on the film is because it’s so damn long, that no American editor friend has had the patience to sit for almost 5 hours. I still know hardly anyone in the industry that actually accepted their press screening invitations due to the time investment of watching this. Not a good sign.
Che is broken into 2 full length movies — here’s the synopsis according to the press release:
SYNOPSIS – CHE PART 1 : The Argentine
(Inspired by The Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto Che Guevara)
“On November 26, 1956, Fidel Castro sails to Cuba with eighty rebels. One of those rebels is Ernesto Che Guevara, an Argentine doctor who shares a common goal with Fidel Castro – to overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Che proves indispensable as a fighter, and quickly grasps the art of guerrilla warfare. As he throws himself into the struggle, Che is embraced by his comrades and the Cuban people. The film tracks Che’s rise in the Cuban Revolution, from doctor to commander to revolutionary hero.”
SYNOPSIS – CHE PART 2: Guerilla
(Inspired by The Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara)
“After the Cuban Revolution, Che is at the height of his fame and power. Then he disappears, re-emerging incognito in Bolivia, where he organizes a small group of Cuban comrades and Bolivian recruits to start the great Latin American Revolution. The story of the Bolivian campaign is a tale of tenacity, sacrifice, idealism, and of guerrilla warfare that ultimately fails, bringing Che to his death. Through this story, we come to understand how Che remains a symbol of idealism and heroism that lives in the hearts of people around the world.”
For the general audience, here’s the release plan — The film will be released on December 12, 2008 for 1 week in NY and LA as the full 4 hour roadshow version. This will be a special presentation with an intermission and a collectible program book.
In January 2009, CHE will open as two separate admissions: CHE PART 1: THE ARGENTINE and CHE PART 2: GUERILLA, and then will be available nationwide on Video-On-Demand.
Whoa. Lotta things. Well, I came into it with open eyes and open mind. I’m a Cuban-American — BUT I’m not one of those that think Che is Satan… A statement that would get me stoned in Miami. I DO have several issues with what he fought for versus what the results were but that’s another story. I truly was able to shut my mind off from the past and try to experience the story of this revolutionary before he made all his mistakes.
Before I begin— the cinematography was gorgeous. The casting was tight. Strong selection of actors. The film was shot using the new RED camera. It is a high-performance digital cine camera with the quality of 35 mm film but the convenience of pure digital. It weighs an outstanding 9 lbs. Film students should go see this film to witness such brilliant technology. “Shooting with RED is like hearing the Beatles for the first time”, said the lucky Soderbergh who got to test this camera out.
Part 1 kept my attention. For someone who was raised hearing all the names in Fidel’s camp, it was fascinating to see these characters come to life — Ciro, Pais, Almeida,Celia Sanchez, Camilo Cienfuegos, etc. There were also people left out such as Huber Matos and I’m sure a few others. After reading the films notes on the film, I realized the writers/producers worked closely with the Cuban government in terms of visiting, speaking to characters who were still alive, additional consulting, meeting Che’s family members. This would all be ok and dandy if they hadn’t chosen to skip over some history points.
Truth is, Huber Matos was one of the generals that fought side by side with Che, Fidel, and Camilo — however, shortly after the Revolution, as Fidel changed his tune and announced his new communist stance, Matos stood up and said “this is not what we fought for”. Fidel disagreed and sentenced him to 20 years for treason. Matos then moved to Miami and joined the anti-Castro movement which made him enemy #1 in Cuba’s eyes. Regardless of how anybody feels about Huber Matos, he fought alongside all the names mentioned in the film. He was a top ranking guerilla and a dedicated soldier, and its disrespectful to rub him out of the history books because they’re beefing today.
My one desire with movies based on the Cuban Revolution is that the Director does not choose “sides”.
This project sadly chose the Cuba “side” and tiptoed around some really potentially interesting conflicts that arose in the revolutionary camp. I enjoyed Soderbergh’s attempt at finding the glory of this battle, but I’m also deeply disappointed he didn’t share it’s equally raw fucked up sides either.
But let’s try to be objective again… Despite the fact that the dream went dark for some Cuban exiles, nobody can deny the dramatic and impressive struggle of 80 men on a boat from Mexico to Cuba (the movies beginning point). After landing on Cuban shores and suffering an ambush, the 80 mean were reduced to 12 survivors who fled to the mountains to settle in and begin building a new army.
Even as a Cuban-American raised on these stories through verbal folklore, I didn’t realize that there was “schooling” up in the mountains. That every soldier could not pick up a gun unless they were taught to read and write first. There was a strict revolutionary code in the mountains — no raping, no poaching. The militaristic operation reminded me of black panther-era communities who refused to accept members unless they accepted the challenge of reading and writing. In addition to schooling, the guerillas had hospitals, printing press, and power plants. It was a very organized positive movement.
The film was interspersed with bookmarked moments of Che traveling to New York, speaking to reporters, and attending his famous UN speech in 1964. It was a nice device that pulled you out of Cuba, and showed you his affect and presence in the outside world.
On that New York trip, Che narrates with his journal entries… “Capitalism is an invisible cage” he says. In the next scene, after schmoozing in a rich New York pad and being gluttons all night with upper class, Che’s Cuban escorts in New York walk out of the apartment of Imperialists and laugh with cheer, “That was a good party!”. Other moments Soderbergh cracks at Che’s vanity is at the TV station in New York. A Producer walks up to Che and asks “Would the commander like some make-up?” to which all the Cuban men say in their macho accents “Nooooooo”. Then when everyone turns away, Che looks at the Producer and says “Well, maybe a little powder”.
Eventually, back in Cuba, after a few years of fighting in the mountains of Cuba, and building the support of locals and gaining new soldiers, three columns were formed down the mountains and finally, “people-power” prevailed… Their bully President, Batista, fled the country… a surrender. The battle which began in 1956 had now turned into 1959 — and for 1 split second, there was hope for change in Cuba.
Part 1 Ends.
When intermission came, I was intrigued by what would follow — because it is only AFTER the revolution was won, that things got dicey in real life… Che’s role was super important in implementing that revolution.
Part 2 Begins…
Somehow the movie took a lazy turn. Part 2 begins in 1965 (that’s a big pocket to skip– 1959 to 1965). There was a famous Edward E. Murrow interview with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountain during the battle. Fidel Castro specifically tells Murrow “This is not a Communist Revolution”. Lots of the men fighting with Fidel thought they were fighting for democratic revolution with Socialist roots — not Communism.
There is a window of time AFTER the Revolution and BEFORE Che left for Bolivia (6 years) that was riddled with internal mess and conflicts. Those who agreed with Fidel’s new stance, got a promotion in the Communist party. Those who disagreed, were sent to prison for betrayal. It was a bloody turn-over in the country, but then again all revolutions are bloody.
The character of Camilo Cienfuegos (who was introduced as one of the charismatic leaders and best friends in battle in Part 1 is completely ignored in Part 2. It may seem like a stickler thought, but all three other mountain comrades also introduced in Part 1 — Urbano, Benigno, and Pombo (Urbano still lives in Cuba today) are mentioned in Part 2’s Bolivian battle. So where is Camilo in Part 2… one of Che’s closest buddies? Why is he ignored?
Here’s where things get fuzzy. In real life, back in Cuba, Camilo died a mysterious death. The facts are dizzying — as they say, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Conspiracy claims that Camilo was “offed”. It was that fatal airplane ride, his Cessna plane disappeared one night over the ocean, never to be found. The story goes, Camilo was begrudgingly forced to arrest fellow comrade Huber Matos. Others say the Cessna plane disappearance was an accident. It’s anyone’s guess what really happened. I’m not saying Soderbergh should have all the answers (it is a rather undocumented black spot in history), but he could have at least presented all the theories, stirred up some ideas, and unearthed some facts in some JFK-Oliver-Stone type-gumbo-puzzle. If he didn’t want to “go there”, then at the very least, the film could have at least given Camilo the honor of announcing his death by the time Che hit Bolivia. Instead most movie-go’ers will have this mistaken notion that Camilo must be alive and happy living in Cuba when in reality, Camilo’s loss was premature, unsolved, and a trauma to the whole country.
I don’t want to be annoying and suggest all these things can be discussed in a 4 hour movie because I know history is so dense… I just feel like Part 1 introduced and made me identify with these exact characters, and Part 2 conveniently forgot some of them. Camilo was the man Che Guevara named his son after. Che wrote endless journal entries about how much he looked up to this man… and nowhere in Part 2 (the whole 2 hours) do they even mention Camilo died… possibly unjustly. I’m sure this weighed heavy in Che’s mind during Bolivia. Strange. Or as I said, the Director decided to choose “sides” and not rock the boat.
Part 2 begins with Che’s resignation letter on November 3, 1966 — 6 years after where part 1 leaves off. It’s a strange loaded letter with hints on the Fidel/Che “break-up”— but nothing concrete. Truth is, nobody knows what went through Che’s mind except Che when he quit the Revolution. It doesn’t even try to toss various theories in your lap. Che’s letter says alot but says nothing — just like the 2nd half of the movie.
And so begins Part 2 –the losing battle in Bolivia. History says Fidel promised Che that the Bolivian President, Monje was anticipating his arrival to fight the next Revolution. Once Che arrives, Monje withdraws his support. Monje then orders Bolivian soldiers to abandon the armed struggle. Che’s soldiers bicker and betray eachother. They spiral into starvation. The locals all turn on them (because the country does not support the operation). Why is Che in Bolivia again? “Che didn’t pick Bolivia. Fidel did” explains Jon Lee Anderson, the guy who wrote Che Guevara (the definitive biography). Part 2 is Che getting his ass kicked— ambush after ambush after ambush.
Part 2, just like Che, ends on a whimper. Our hero is now fragile, weak, beaten down, without moral compass, without political compass. It trails off into confusion and hopelessness. No outsider devices like Part 1. No mention of Che’s Congo visit. No outside CIA perspective (it’s widely known that Bolivian army and CIA together captured Che). Nobody is holding the viewers hands and explaining big picture (and outside perspective) the way Part 1 did so well.
Che loses his cause, his teamwork, his men, he even loses his name (his new Bolivian code name was Ramon)… did I mention it’s 2 hours of this painful meandering? There was no need to end the epic wimpy. Sure he was genuinely losing the fight, but the true nature of the politics of this era was so much more interesting — What was happening back in Cuba? What was happening with the US as the Cold War was launching? What was Che’s role in this vortex?
It’s not what they show in Part 2 that’s telling, its what they DONT show — little to no communication with Fidel. In Part 1, Fidel refuses that Che fights on the front lines in Cuba because “he was too important”. Fidel tells Che in the 50’s, “We need you”. So what’s the deal with the 60’s Che after he resigned from the Cuban Revolution? Fidel just lets him die out in the middle of nowhere, without support, on a suicide mission? Or was it Che being stubborn, feeling stuck, with nowhere left to go? Too many unanswered questions — none of which are explored in Part 2.
Finally, at the end of the film, after his capture, a Bolivian soldier asks “How’s Cuba?” Che looks bruised, deflated, and ambivalent while answering, “Cuba is progressing”. They kill him. Then the Bolivian captors take that last picture of the legend Badlands-style. The famous photo next to the alpha prized hunt.
Back to the CIA involvement. The films only mention of CIA is the Bolivian governments statement which denies CIA involvement. Che was killed in the highlands of Bolivia in a CIA operation headed up by a man by the name of Felix Rodriguez (a Cuban-American who fought Bay of Pigs, and had ties to George H. W. Bush during the Iran Contra Affair). The US wanted Che alive for interrogation. The Bolivian army ordered him dead. The film has no mention of any of this nor of another central figure in his capture– Felix Rodriguez. Yet another fascinating moment in history skipped over.
It’s funny that all the people cut out of this films history are all part of the Miami faction today. As I said, whatever one may think of either side, it was the duty of the Director to report all the angles of a checkered past.
In my opinion, Watch Part 1. Skip Part 2. I’d even venture to say that Part 1 should be shown in classrooms all around America. Not because it is historically accurate — on the contrary — it only opens up Pandora’s box. After viewing Part 1, a classroom can get into a full debate on the characters — the ones in the film, the ones that are omitted from the film, and what the current political agenda’s are that created this break in continuity. The backstory politics is so much more interesting.
I TOTALLY realize it’s a lot of speculation, but I thought maybe this film, like no other, would introduce or culminate into a barrage of various researched stories from all sides (I heard the producers did a ton of homework and interviewed original figures) and their intentions were pure it seemed.
Sometimes, I feel like an accurate film on the Cuban Revolution can only be made several generations after everyone dies. It’s too personal and biased to hire consultants who live in Cuba today. I worked on a documentary myself in Cuba and I can tell you that no cooperation occurs unless the State has utter control of your story. Having hired a few wonderful actors from Cuba, spoken to Che’s family, and hired some consultants on the island too — I’m sure Soderbergh had to get his script approved by the Cuban government, which is sadly a “puff piece” on Castro and omits some heroic facts and figures from the Cuban Revolution history.
The films closing shot speaks volumes. It’s loaded. Once again, it says nothing but says everything. After we see Che’s caracass, there’s a flashback to “that day” on the boat leaving Mexico headed for Cuba in 1956. Che leans over the side and stares at a young Fidel for long moment. It’s a poker face… but he’s thinking intensely. Was he staring at the guy who would change his destiny? Was he staring at the guy who would sell him out? Was he staring at all of it? Was he staring at nothing?