Anyone intrigued by the forthcoming Che, the lengthy biopic of Che Guevara by director Steven Soderbergh, might consider a homework assignment before hitting the theater.
The True Story of Che Guevara, out this week [Sept.23] on DVD, serves up a straightforward account of the man who launched a thousand T-shirts — and turned Cuba into an economic wasteland with precious little freedom.
Soderbergh’s film won’t be released until later this year just as Oscar season heats up. But reviews from a cut screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year showed Soderbergh wasn’t interested in exploring Guevara’s dark side.
After all, it’s hard to root for a revolutionary figure who feels little while killing anyone who disagrees with his worldview.
Chances are more people will hear about Che than this absorbing new documentary from A&E, even if the latter doesn’t paint the full picture of Guevara’s legacy.
A young, impressionable Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna, born of middle class roots, planned to become a doctor, not a revolutionary. His famous motorcycle jaunt across Argentina brought him face to face with suffering peasants whose lives were nothing like what he knew.
Those confrontations forged his ideology. He embraced the Marxist/Leninist model, and while he completed his doctor’s degree he realized mere medicinal work wouldn’t be enough to salve people’s suffering.
He wanted to change the world, and specifically loosen what he saw as the grip the U.S. had across the globe. He met like-minded souls in Fidel and Raul Castro, and together they began plotting the overthrow of General Fulgencio Batista’s government in Cuba.
The film efficiently recalls their initial effort to depose Batista, a military debacle which nearly shattered their band of rebels.
But Guevara was a fast learner, and his charisma and grasp of guerrilla tactics proved more than a match for Cuba’s governmental forces. He ruled by sheer force of will, an unblinking personality, and, quite often, a healthy dose of fear. His disciples respected his iron will, and the way he charged into battles while Fidel Castro stayed behind.
Guevara used this fear to his advantage, and his small but passionate following often cared more about staying alive than following Guevara’s life mission.
The revolutionary’s greatest hits more or less ended in Cuba. He tried to become a player on the world stage, but he wasn’t keen on making political moves that clashed with his convictions. His ties to the Castro brothers remained strong, but the Cuban leader understood the delicacy of geopolitical alliances. Thus when Castro teamed up with Russia, Guevara turned up his nose at the bond.
His mission to bring revolution to Bolivia proved his undoing and showed even a legend has his limits.
Ultimately, Guevara proved a failure in a geopolitical sense. His attempts at fomenting revolutions across the world fell flat. And his dreams of a communist Cuba turned into a nightmare for its populace. It’s hard to say if he regretted how that social experiment worked out. He was too busy scribbling down his radical thoughts and lining up traitors to gun down. He did so indiscriminately, we’re told. Oppose his regime and risk death by firing squad. It’s a chilling part of his life story, the chapters that too many Guevara worshipers sweep under the rug.
The True Story of Che Guevara does no such thing, although it doesn’t spend as much time on this part of his personality, nor does it stop to reflect on how his killings clash with his longing to help the poorest of the poor.
It’s what makes The True Story of Che Guevara all the more vital for those curious about the man behind the myth.
The film zeroes in so sharply on its subject matter that it spares little time for broader context. Viewers will have to come equipped with Cold War 101, and the Cuban Missile Crisis gets only a quick but illuminating breakdown.
The DVD gathers some fascinating sources to help flesh out Guevara’s story, including several of his former soldiers — both U.S. citizens and Argentine rebels. Their reflections set the documentary footage apart, and they also more than make amends for some perfunctory dramatic recreations.
The True Story of Che Guevara even gets current Bolivian Evo Morales to praise the late leader.
The documentary’s most conflicting presence is John Lee Anderson, who wrote Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. The author supplies the kind of detail that too many nonfiction films lack.
But while he expresses concern over Guevara’s tactics, he seems a bit too enamored with his subject matter. One suspects he’ll be first in line for Soderbergh’s forthcoming biography.
He isn’t alone.
Hollywood appears eager to whitewash Guevara’s legacy, or even compare him to Jesus Christ as Che star Benicio del Toro recently did.
Those who check out The True Story of Che Guevara won’t attempt such monumental leaps.