Procedural History in Che

by tigermanifesto


Steven Soderbergh’s Che is one of the few filmed biographies that is resolutely anti-psychological. In no way is it a “humanizing portrait” of the famous revolutionary leader, war strategist, and Marxist theorist. Rather, it is a depiction of him at war, in one arena or another, throughout the late 1950s and early 60s. Part one follows the successful Cuban Revolution from eastern Cuba to west, ending with the triumphal drive to Havana. This is intercut with scenes of the later Guevara speaking at the United Nations and with American leftists and journalists. Part two focuses on his failure to export his foco theory of guerrilla revolution to Bolivia as the Communist Party there refused to support him. It culminates in his capture and execution by the Bolivian military.

Shot with the then-prototype RED camera, Soderbergh is able to shoot beautiful images in a “guerrilla style,” whether in sweeping action scenes like the Battle of Santa Clara in the first part or in tense close-ups and winding handheld shots in the second. The effect this has is to “objectify” Che and the events depicted. Until the moment Che is executed at the end of the second part, the only subjective shots we see are at the ends of a gun, usually from the vantage of enemy troops. This perspective allows the film to treat its subjects as external actors, conveying information without overcomplicating the narrative with speculation about Che’s mental state at a given moment.

Everything unfolds as in a procedural, with the details of preparation, organization, discipline, and deployment occupying most of the running time. The result is a film that has a nearly scholarly aura that refuses to romanticize its subject mater.

History in Che, therefore, plays a role similar to the one it plays in nonfiction. The cinema verité style and narrative framing emphasize political and geographical features over personal biography. We see no childhood scenes, nothing about his motorcycle journeys or his career before meeting Fidel Castro. In that way, it bears less resemblance to a typical biopic and more to a pair of war films, each one parallel in structure and yet quite different in result. Each begins with Che’s entrance into the country and has a denouement in a lengthy battle scene. In part one, as mentioned, the latter is the Battle of Santa Clara, the climactic urban battle that sealed Fulgencio Batista’s defat in Cuba. The second part ends with a battle in a ravine with Che and his guerrillas pinned down by advancing American-trained Bolivian troops. While Part One begins with Che at his lowest point, suffering from asthma attacks and fleeing capture in the jungle, Part Two ends in similar fashion. The structures are parallel and yet in many cases inverted, meaning that the two parts are each tailored to the actual events.

This treatment of history makes the narrative structure and visual construction of the two films worlds away from the usual American way of conforming the narrative to a three-act plot.

In some ways, of course, this shears off any way that the film can make larger points about its subject matter. It forgoes over political commentary despite having an intensely political story. There is a certain way in which it favor Che in adopting him as its subject, which casts the various American operatives as antagonists, but the way the film “objectifies” the people and events onscreen essentially reduces them to matter in motion. There are glimpses here and there of interior life and motivations, but that tends to either be blatantly stated in speeches or relegated to the background while the real conflict of the story plays out. I don’t say any of that as a value judgment, since I think the film succeeds spectacularly at depicting revolutionaries and guerrilla warfare as a process. At the same time, as a historian, I can take issue with this kind of presentation as it excludes deeper analytical reflection than simple observation. In other words, there’s little “theory” to Che, which leaves the polemics and the politics to its protagonist.