Sympathetic cinema portraits of great revolutionary figures are rare. So this new film – by Hollywood director Steven Sonderbergh – about Che Guevara, which is released on 1 January, is extremely welcome.
The Motorcycle Diaries gave us Che on the edge of political consciousness. This film shows him still young, but now fully committed.
Our first glimpse of him is in Mexico City at a diner in the company of Fidel Castro.
This deliberately subtle opening leads us into one of the most stirring events of the 20th century – the story of how a handful of revolutionaries landed in Cuba in 1956 and survived to overthrow the brutal US-backed dictator, Batista, a mere three years later.
The bulk of the film is set in the mountains and jungles of Cuba. Che – played with understated force by Benicio del Toro – goes from being a doctor to becoming a successful guerrilla fighter and leader.
His asthma was a serious handicap but his physical courage and moral determination shine through. But there’s more to the film than Che’s inspirational leadership and a series of military engagements
There’s a recurring debate among the guerrillas about the social dimension of the struggle.
Is being a good fighter simply a matter of firing a rifle or does it also require revolutionary discipline?
One crucial point is how Che deals with guerrillas who use their position to rob, murder and rape peasants. And in the very last sequence Che has to reprimand some of his subordinates for commandeering a luxury car to drive to Havana. The danger of corruption threatens even the moment of triumph.
Time and time again, the film asserts that the struggle was not a coup but a revolution – not a change of leaders but a change of political values.
In the great setpiece of the film – the battle to take the last town that stands between the insurgents and the capital – Che capitalises on the internal disintegration of Batista’s local army and police caused by deep, popular opposition. He can thus defeat them despite having smaller and less well armed forces.
The film is interlaced with black and white reconstructions of an interview Che gave in New York and his address to the United Nations in 1964. From the immediacy of guerrilla struggle we pass to consideration of the regime that has resulted.
The film ends by going back to the discussions we saw between Che and Fidel in Mexico City at the beginning of the film.
Some critics think this is artistically clunky. But there is more to the film than a heroic adventure.
The tension between Fidel and Che is the tension between whether the revolution is to be limited pragmatically to the national arena or whether it is the first step in a broader, international struggle.
Then there is the relationship between the mountains and the plain. That is, between the areas where the guerrillas can operate with relative ease – but which can only be a base – and the areas where other social forces and political traditions dominate but where the guerrillas have to gain supremacy if they are to be victorious.
Here the film is much less satisfactory. These problems are rarely more than arguments about the tactics needed to achieve victory.
The black and white newsreel style touches on a related problem – the isolation of the regime as a beacon of resistance to US imperialism and its relationship to the Soviet Union.
Here we see a very different Che – much more constrained and ill at ease in the alien surroundings of New York society and in his role as spokesperson for the Cuban regime.
His movements are awkward, his words edgy. The black and white contrasts with the exuberant colour of the Cuban landscape, as if the joy of life as a guerrilla has drained out of him.
The film has real strengths. Its determination to stick as closely as possible to what Che actually did or said is an attempt to see him outside the distorting prism of Cold War polemics. He is neither demon nor saint.
Yet this concentration on Che’s life means that bigger political questions are sidestepped – what could be the fate of a revolution, however popular, where the self-activity of workers or peasants played no active role in winning or retaining power?
What did this mean for the Cuban regime and its dependency on the Soviet Union?
The film brings home vividly just how inspiring Che’s revolutionary struggle was. And it also provides an excellent starting point for viewers to probe more deeply into the politics of revolution.
This is the first of a two-parter on the life of Che. The second part – to be released in Febuary – deals with Che quitting Cuba, his internationalism, his return to guerrilla struggle and his tragic death.