A few days ago Greg at Cinema Styles posted an illuminating piece about the differences between the "Hollywood War Film" and the "Documentary War Film." "Basically," he wrote, "the Doc-Style film...has a gritty verisimilitude, an uncomfortable relationship with reality that keeps the viewer off-balance while the Hollywood war film...goes for fantasy and mythos and uses the language of film to achieve something that in the real world does not exist." Greg was specifically comparing The Hurt Locker to Inglourious Basterds, but his analogy also helped me crack the 270-minute, two-part nut that is Steven Soderbergh's Che. Part One -- "The Argentine" -- is lushly romantic; Part Two -- "Guerrilla" -- is a cinema-verite slog.
These two distinct styles are no doubt intentional on Soderbergh's part, though that's not to say that there isn't overlap. This is certainly true of the films Greg mentions in his piece, and those that continue to be discussed in the comments. Some war movies are tricker to define than others. (I disagree with Marilyn Ferdinand, for example, that Platoon is a documentary-style, "you-are-there" combat film; I think it's a Hollywood war film in disguise.) I was so absorbed and baffled by Che that it's useful to initially paint the experience in broad strokes before delving into details.
"The Argentine" cuts deftly back and forth between Che Guevera's 1956-59 experiences in the Cuban Revolution and the days leading up to his 1964 speech at the United Nations in New York City. Soderbergh shoots the latter sequences in black-and-white and uses Che's interview with a flinty British journalist (Julia Ormond) as a springboard to the Cuba sections, which are green and gorgeous and exciting to watch. It's a relief to see Soderbergh abandon his chilly blue-filtered interiors for an outdoorsy look as warm and vernal as Malick's Thin Red Line. In so doing (Soderbergh, as "Peter Andrews," is once again his own DP), he also avoids the puke-browns of the Mexico City sequences in Traffic, though he wisely brings back its star.
Benicio Del Toro had quietly developed one of the most interesting acting careers of the last fifteen years. It was his own brilliant idea in The Usual Suspects to transform his character Fenster into a hilariously incomprehensible mumbler. (Del Toro has said he realized when reading the script that nothing his character said actually mattered.) And he was terrific in the otherwise mediocre Traffic, imbuing his pivotal character -- a Mexican cop at war with the drug trade -- with an understated integrity. (I'm cracking up now, having just glanced at Del Toro's IMDb filmography, to see that his next role is reportedly Moe Howard in the Farrelly brothers' The Three Stooges.) Del Toro has some of Robert Mitchum's sleepy-eyed magnetism, yet unlike Mitchum I've yet to see him coast on charm alone. All this is to say he's a perfect Che Guevera, both heroic icon and frail human being.
Che in "The Argentine" has an obvious yet thrilling trajectory: young Marxist idealist; wheezing asthmatic in the jungle (his fellow rebels cringe every time he coughs); charismatic leader who, as a child points out, is not above lying to achieve his aims. Che is also an outsider, initially embraced by Castro ("You're as Cuban as the rest of us," El Comandante assures him) before their relationship deteriorates Trotsky/Stalin-style, as the bookish intellectual flees the country to stir revolution in other parts of the world.
"Guerrilla" charts Che's downfall in Bolivia from 1966-67, with many scenes designed to correspond to moments from "The Argentine." A pair of young boys willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the revolution in "The Argentine" are given self-serving counterparts in "Guerrilla." (One distraction: These characters, who are supposed to be adolescents, look as grizzled as the "teenagers" in Porky's 3.) The devoted female Cuban fighter Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) from Part One is replaced by the wealthy socialist Tamara Bunke (Franka Potente), who meets a tragic end in Part Two. Filmed as a hand-held docudrama, the Bolivian jungle is less alluring than the topography in Cuba. The days are generally grim and overcast as Che and his revolution march toward their doom.
Although Greg's aforementioned piece doesn't address Che, reading it makes it easier to understand what Soderbergh is doing in both portions of the movie. In an appropriately Marxist manner, he's striving to create a cinematic dialectic where the romantic "Hollywood war film" and the "documentary war film" synthesize the two key parts of Che Guevera's life. (We receive only cursory information about his unsuccessful journeys to the Congo and Venezuela.) That I find "The Argentine" superb and "Guerrilla" a grind may say more about my own taste than the quality of either film; maybe, when it comes to war movies, I tend to prefer the Hollywood-style to the documentary version.
Yet for everything I admire about Che as a whole (especially compared to Soderbergh's mostly terrible work over the past decade), there's something bothersome about a filmmaker's lack of emotional engagement with his subject. This is nothing new for an egghead auteur whose last genuine connection with humanity was 1993's King of the Hill. (Naturally, the only film Soderbergh wishes he could remake.) Nowadays he veers between the celebrity gawking of the Ocean's series to the non-actor condescension of Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh hasn't shown more than a marginal interest in character since the one-two punch of Out of Sight and The Limey. It's troubling that the colorful personalities in a true-to-life epic are less vivid than cinematic moments, as when Batista's stolen automobile at the end of "The Argentine" becomes a symbol of corruption as evocative as the gold telephone casually passed around the table in The Godfather: Part II. Che is an academic exercise that is ambitious, impressive and well worth seeing. Yet to paraphrase the funniest line from The Limey, it's been made by a filmmaker who is less of a person than a vibe.
From revolution-era Cuba and Bolivia in Che we journey to contemporary Honduras and then northward through Mexico in Sin Nombre, a more modestly scaled movie that is no less superficially relevant. Willy (Edgar Flores), a teenage member of the murderous Mara Salvatrucha gang who begins to harbor misgivings for the path he has chosen, is forced to make a desperate run for the border with his tattooed blood-brothers in hot pursuit. On a train he meets Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran emigrant roughly the same age, seeking a new life in the States along with her father and uncle. Writer-director Cary Fukanaga's feature-length debut has been widely-praised, but for me the predictable schematics of the plot were a little too much El Norte-meets-Apocalypto. Still, Flores and Gaitan give sensitive performances, and Fukanaga shows a refreshing comprehension of the basics evidently untaught in American film schools these days (staging, framing, pacing). Sin Nombre is a decent enough effort that makes me look forward to his next one.