Sunday, March 22, 2009

Che: the ("Non")-Fiction Movie

Che, the movie, parts one and two is now in theaters.

The movies, divided into two, two hour segments as opposed to the original four hour single feature they were supposed to have been, documents periods in the life of the iconic Argentinian born revolutionary. Ernesto "Che" Guevara's worldview was to export his brand of violent, communist revolution around the world and to overthrow the capitalist system stifling progress and oppressing the masses in some of the worlds poorest places. Che not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk too. Che was involved with leftist forces in Guatemala in the 1950s as they fought against a US backed coup, and he fought for the communist cause in Cuba, the Congo and Bolivia. A well written comprehensive biography of Che, worth checking out for anyone interested, is "Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life" by Jon Lee Anderson.

Turning to the movie, the story is entertaining, despite being so long. There are exciting action sequences, visually beautiful shots and good, convincing acting, but this is essentially where the praise should end. Anyone interested in really learning about the life of Che, what he stood for and why he is so iconic should take the time to read Anderson and forget about the movie. Those four hours were little more then an entertaining series of simplistic half-truths (including a surreal Cameo by Matt Damon) glorifying an 'unjustified' protagonist. 'Unjustified' not necessarily meaning that Che was not worth of 'glory', but rather that the movie was not able to convince that he was.

For starters, when watching Che, one gets the feeling that the director assumes that the audience already considers Che a hero. The movie does nothing to convince the viewer that its protagonist is worthy of his role. There is no character development explaining why this person is actually such a remarkable figure. The movie launches right into Che's "revolutionary career" with him in a central role and never explains why he's so deserving of such a position.

The movie also fails at explaining how Che became Che. How did he find himself in the central position he played in the Cuban revolution? How did he fall in with the likes of Castro? Why would he even have wanted to? There are answers to these questions, and Che's gravitation towards and embrace of "revolutionary" values are nowhere to be found in the movies. It is simply accepted, Che is a "revolutionary" and has a rightful place at the centre of the Cuban revolution.

The question of Che's political development is not all that's omitted from the movie. His youth, his time in Guatemala, in the Congo, in the revolutionary Cuban government and other significant aspects of his life are either completely ignored or given just passing reference. These are all important to understanding the character but lacking.

It has been said that biographer's fall in love with their subjects. This is true to a degree with Anderson but especially so in the movies. Che can do no wrong. He is portrayed as principled, disciplined, fair, yet stern, a visionary, a leader, a healer, as inspirational and with only one exception, infallible. Clearly, many see Che that way, and this movie will no doubt reinforce that image, but its not accurate. Che shot people in cold blood. He killed them because they "deserted" his revolutionary "army," or because they were traitors. Che conducted "trials" in Cuba, after the revolution where he passed death sentences against "traitors." He also participated enthusiastically in a revolution where his comrades, such as Castro's brother, Raul, dug a trench and machine gunned 70 captured Cuban soldiers into it. (As an aside, Che did call Raul an extremist, but he continued to play a role in the revolution and certainly, Raul was never punished for this action.) In Che Part two, where Che is fighting in Bolivia, there is little examination of the ethics of Che, continuing to lead under supplied, sick, weak men and women into battle against a far superior Bolivian military even when it became clear that victory and the revolution would not be possible. The option always remains for a Guerrilla force to fade away, regroup and come back to continue their struggle another time, but Che pushed his forces onwards, even in the face of certain death. Finally, the question of Che's methods is also ignored. At one point, Che gives a short monologue about why revolutions like his must be violent. There is no real discussion of this question. Yes, this is a movie about Che and is supposed to present Che as he was, but it would have been appropriate to challenge this value of his a bit further. The only real critiques of Che in the whole movie are scenes of marginalized, barely visible people protesting a public appearance he makes in the US.

Anyone who has four hours to kill, wants some entertainment and wants to learn at least something about Che should see the movie. Be very conscious, however, that the whole of the four hours should be taken with several large grains of salt, and not just on your popcorn.

1 comment:

miri said...

I'm glad you wrote this -- that movie left me feeling a bit empty, to put it mildly, but I don't know enough about Che to really put it in perspective. I'm forwarding this blog to my sister, who fell asleep three times at least throughout (admittedly she'd had a long day).