Often in the chronicles of human endeavor, what appears a great beginning, or at least a revival, in a political or ideological movement, in reality represents its final, decadent stage. Some fireworks burn brightest as they die, Thus it was that the flourishing anarchist movement during the Spanish civil war of 1936-39, while viewed at the time as a powerful breakthrough for a phenomenon that defined itself in terms baffling to most today, as "libertarian communism," stood at the conclusion of radical labor’s intervention in history.
There are many more such examples, both in totalitarianism and in more benevolent chapters of the modern epic. From the Parisian insurrection of 1968 to the riots in Athens today, the same judgment appears appropriate: notwithstanding the frenetic acclamation of superficial commentators, these are better seen as concluding rather than inaugural moments. In my view, the same could be said of the Islamofascist offensive embodied in the atrocities of September 11, 2001. I believe the horror of that day represented Saudi Wahhabism in extremis, rather than the commencement of a victorious worldwide jihad, just as Hitler’s temporary victories in Europe in 1939-41 preceded the eventual collapse, rather than the triumph, of Nazi imperialism.
Of no 20th century event does the coincidence of spectacle with decline seem more obvious, in retrospect, than the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The pathetic story of Ernesto "Che" Guevara’s fall from revolutionary hero in 1960 to scrounging vagabond liquidated in Bolivia in 1967 was, at the time, perceived by only a few observers in the international radical milieu as a sign that the wave of protest culminating in France six months afterward would close, rather than open, a cycle.
Guevara has returned to prominence as a symbol of the left, displayed on tee shirts and other ephemera, including a brand of cigarettes in Holland. With that result, the appearance of Steven Soderbergh’s bloated two-part film Che, totaling four hours of incident and detail incomprehensible to anybody who is not Cuban or a specialist in the annals of Castroism, comes as no surprise. But as with the revolution itself, and the subsequent squalid defeat of Guevara’s Bolivian campaign, what we see on the screen must stand as a stillborn exercise in nostalgia, rather than evidence of a Castroite resurrection.
In addition, this cinematic monstrosity signifies the end of Soderbergh’s credibility as a film director. While the Georgia-born cinéaste has been hailed absurdly as a protean figure excelling in all aspects of movie-making, his career has slid since he displayed a clever perceptiveness about sexual deceit in sex, lies, and videotape (1989). His Erin Brockovich and Traffic, released in 2000, were competent but effective more for their messages – the virtue of protest against corporate corruption in the first case, the power of corruption represented by the drug trade, in the second – than for their cinematic verve. Traffic, for its part, was marred by unconvincing family entanglements attached to the character of a high government official, played by Michael Douglas.
Soderbergh’s obsessions, focused on improbable narrative convolutions that hardly rise to the level of "plot twists," obscure gadgets, and shallow characterizations, have made his later pictures unattractive, when not incomprehensible, to critics and viewers alike. With the Ocean’s 11-12-13 franchise, his flaws were aggravated to a point where the last two films became caricatural. The blank stupidity of employing the actress Julia Roberts to play a woman pretending to be the actress Julia Roberts, in Ocean’s 12, was hard to exceed, although the same film was weighed down (physically no less than psychologically) by the enormously (in every sense) untalented Catherine Zeta-Jones, who had brought nothing but bulk to Traffic.
In Ocean’s 13, Soderbergh outdid his previous artistic failures by humiliating Al Pacino, making him a simulacrum of the suave outlaw roles in some of which he had excelled (see the Godfather trilogy and Carlito’s Way, not the ludicrous Scarface). Ocean’s 13 similarly degraded Ellen Barkin, who once joined Pacino in lighting up the classic Sea of Love. And those were but two imbecilities in a movie filled with such tidbits. Formerly, such film fumbles were usually blamed by the prevalence in Hollywood of a then-common variant of "p.c.": Peruvian cocaine. In the case of Che, however, the drug at fault is obviously the more familiar political correctness.
Andy Garcia, an underrated and underutilized star who, with obvious justification, trudged through the Ocean’s franchise as if his only concern might have been to collect his check, is a Cuban-American and pronounced anti-Castro patriot, so that his inveiglement into the Che disaster was doubtless impossible to imagine. But a Cuban-born star with a thorough knowledge of the events in Cuba and Bolivia in the 1950s and 1960s could not have saved this latest debacle. Not even Benicio del Toro, a good choice for a Guevara impersonation, could effect such a rescue.
Soderbergh’s Che appears more a pseudo-documentary than a dramatic film, an effect heightened by the film’s dialogue being almost entirely in Spanish. Yet it is a pseudo-doc with a considerable difference, in that notwithstanding its enervating length, Soderbergh’s Che ignores, without exception, the entire backstory of the events it portrays. The origin of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship is never explained; nor is the July 26, 1953 failed coup attempt by Castro, centered on an assault at the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, for which the July 26 Movement (M-26-J) was named. Among Cubans and foreign experts, the latter gap may be easily explained; how to account for the fact that Batista, universally portrayed by Castrophiles as a monster, was satisfied to see the defiant captive Castro sentenced to no more than 15 years in prison, of which he served only two before he was released in a Batista amnesty? How, we may ask, does this compare with the dozens of executions carried out after Castro’s takeover? Similarly, the training of Guevara as a medical doctor is unaddressed, although it is doubtful that many spectators of this film will ask how a physician, who has taken the Hippocratic oath to preserve life, could have ordered so many of the mentioned shootings.
The background of Guevara as an anti-American radical in the Guatemalan events of 1954 is also overlooked. Add to this a silence about the history of the Directorio Revolucionario, the main alternative armed oppositional group to Castro’s M-26-J. Throughout the film, in addition to its near-exclusive Spanish dialogue, groups and names are mentioned without any effort to flesh them out. A "Faustino" appears and denounces the PSP or Popular Socialist party, as the Cuban Communist party then styled itself, as Stalinists. His full name, Faustino Pérez, is unmentioned, along with his cooptation into the Cuban Communist leadership. Nor, of course, is the rich experience of the Cuban Stalinist apparatus as partners of Batista, whom they supported as the Nicaraguan Stalinists once backed Anastasio Somoza, discussed. A "Rolando" is given orders, and is identified in the credits, printed in a separate pamphlet, as Rolando Cubela; Cubela’s later turn against Castro, imprisonment in a plot to kill the dictator, and eventual exile, are deemed unworthy of mention.
Similarly, Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, a Spanish-born anti-Stalinist revolutionary who distinguished himself as a fighter in Cuba, is casually smeared, without further elucidation (Gutiérrez Menoyo also turned against Castro.) As in the Ocean’s franchise, Soderbergh remains fascinated with gimmicks rather than personalities. He spends more time in the first half of the film recording the wrecking of apartment walls to gain a tactical position during the climactic battle of Santa Clara than with the crisis of the Batista regime caused by the same battle.
In its second-half treatment of Guevara’s Bolivian misadventure, context is even more important, and further absent. Whatever one’s view of the Bolivian Communist Party as a Soviet and Cuban tool, Guevara’s delusions about life in the highland nation were absurd. Bolivia’s marginalized indigenous majority and history of Trotskyist trade-unionism, rather than pro-Soviet leftism or Castro-style socialist caudillismo, had nothing in common with the population in Cuba or its history. Guevara emerged on the altiplano more as a subimperialist emissary of neighboring Argentina’s Peronism than as an authentic social revolutionary, and left no visible influence in Bolivian political life. Among the many phantom names that passes through this film like water in a sieve is that of Jorge Ricardo Masetti, an Argentine associate of Guevara who began his political career in a Peronist group with fascist tendencies. This fact was revealed in a 1997 Guevara biography by Jon Lee Anderson, pretentiously credited as the film’s Chief Consultant, but apparently ignored.
Guevara was obviously a heedless risk-taker, as shown by the cigar- and pipe-smoking habits he maintained even though he was asthmatic. Nobody has ever, it seems, asked what kind of person, especially one trained as a doctor, would so indulge himself. At the time of his death, few might have imagined the glamorous Guevara going to Bolivia to commit "revolutionary suicide" – a planetary equivalent of the "suicide by cop" in which insane individuals wave guns at the police. But some in the Castroite milieu of the time, which existed in the U.S. no less than elsewhere, and of which I was then still a member, suspected that Guevara had become an uncomfortable presence for Castro.
I remember vividly the rainy day in San Francisco, in October 1967, when the death of Guevara produced headlines in the local dailies. We feared Guevara had been encouraged to leave Cuba and immolate himself in a faroff place, surrounded by people who did not understand or sympathize with him, with the complicity of Bolivian Stalinists. In addition, much has been revealed since Guevara’s death about Tamara Bunke, known as "Tania," the German-Argentine who accompanied him to Bolivia and was also killed there. Bunke was a KGB/Stasi agent assigned to monitor Guevara’s Bolivian operations. All such perspective is missing from Soderbergh’s film.
The only thing more tedious about this film than its artistic and historic nullity was the juvenile reaction to it visible among the recusant leftists, many of them resembling escapees from an asylum, who crowded into its showing in Manhattan, giggling and cheering at predictable war scenes, like children at a Star Wars performance. The film should be called Castro’s 12, because like an Ocean’s franchise product, it is all bogus aesthetics and no content – as well as in recollection of the 12 survivors, including Castro and Guevara, of the doomed Cuban revolutionary mission of 1956, in the yacht Granma. These personages leap into the camera’s eye and depart from it much as do the associates of George Clooney in the Ocean’s series – but such may be the fate of any film roles created by Soderbergh.
In real history, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, notwithstanding their political faults, along with Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ahmed Ben Bella in North Africa, erupted into global attention as youthful idols. The leadership of the leading nations then remained in the superannuated hands of men like Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Macmillan, DeGaulle, and Mao. In this regard, the Cuban revolutionaries, in particular, and as I have written elsewhere, had more in common with Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis Presley than with Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
But Guevara himself, as a doctor who embraced terrorism, may better be compared with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who became second-in-command to Osama bin Laden, as well as the notorious Stalinist assassin and medical anthropologist, Mark Zborowski; Radovan Karadži?, the government psychiatrist who became infamous as a terror leader in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and now faces trial at The Hague, and even Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi death-camp doctor (see Scientific Training and Radical Islam, published by the Center for Islamic Pluralism). This is the aspect of the Guevara legacy that most needs examination, and is most lacking from Soderbergh’s overblown homage to a revolution that led to tragedy and disillusion, even before the Bolivian fiasco that ended Guevara’s life.