A four hour subtitled political biography may not seem like the wisest way to spend New Year’s Day. The potential for stamina giving way early on is obvious in the aftermath of festive excess. That, though, is how we spent the first evening of 2009.
It’s a joy, then, to report that director Steven Soderbergh’s (apparently) box-office unfriendly attempt to tell the story of one the 20th century’s most iconic political figures is a towering success. It’s very different to The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film that took us into the formative years of the Che’s life; there is little of that film’s relational warmth, little attempt to explain or understand. Instead the film is really dealing with a very contemporary concern – celebrity. Just how do people get famous and influential? Guevera’s real significance has been lost to many behind the t-shirts and posters; these films try to help us why he became such a figure in the first place. Hence, there’s little in the way of his relationships – little of him doing anything other than speaking to, training or fighting alongside, men. Such is the strength of Benicio Del Toro’s screen presence that this doesn’t make him feel unknowable – it becomes very clear that this is a man born to lead. It’s as simple as that. It’s a study in leadership – the ability to connect with, inspire and call people to a goal bigger than themselves, the cost of which may be the very highest possible.
The almost academic, documentary tone serves to make this all the more involving – rather than turning the viewer off, the subtle design and direction involves, grips and stimulates whatever you political viewpoint. Resisting the temptation towards hagiography makes subjects like this all the more accessible.
Of course, there are gaps as subjects are left uncovered or only briefly referred to – the break with Fidel Castro being the most glaring. But all that does is to reinforce the film’s study of leadership – with only the viewer’s own preconceptions and knowledge to add, the film seeks to place the viewer in the mind of one Guevera’s followers. He may be flawed, events may be ultimately beyond his control, and ultimately his will would be broken on the wheel of greater powers – but he’s followed because he’s willing to lead. Which can only make one sad as we survey the leaders around us.