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History Lessons (Pt. 2): Notes on Steven Soderbergh's "Che"

David McDougall




Part Two of Che begins with images of Bolivian miners. These are not portraits of revolutionaries, but of the need for revolution.

Domino theory, or, the threat of a good example:  Again we return to maps.  This time they are of South America as a whole, each country labelled as if in a future trajectory of revolution. Then, all countries together, turning shades of red. Again the maps historicize the situation, and walk us through strategies for takeover. Now the Cuba map from the overture of Part One clicks: these maps represent not just a geography, but a plan of attack. Now we know what we’re in for in Bolivia – and perhaps, elsewhere. The battle for Bolivia is thus a bigger wager than that of an exported national revolution – it is a test of the historical inevitability of communism in Latin America.

History, again: we watch a television showing Fidel reading Che's letter of resignation. Our view is slanted, our images doubly framed. History is viewed from afar, obscured, sideways. History makes icons out of people, symbols out of leaders, decorations out of actions. History is framed.

In Part One, we never see the military training of the Cuban revolutionaries—it is an assumed, necessary component of their readiness to attempt a coup. In exploring the workings of a preparation gone awry, Part Two presents the failings of the Bolivian enterprise before it can properly begin.  Soderbergh explores the processes that form building blocks to revolution—these films are primarily lessons in logistics.

Che, for his part, is a force of energetic commitment. At issue in the Bolivian jungle is whether the objective conditions for revolution exist in Bolivia, and how much Che's force of will can bring such a revolution about.

As a chronicle of Che’s revolutionary commitment, Che: Part Two inverts the successful negotiations with events that mark Part One. If, in the struggle for Cuba, Fidel’s tactical and strategic leadership was aided by popular support toward the triumph of the Revolution, the Bolivian situation relies on an optimistic but false hope of the willingness of people to rise up, and of the vanguard to maintain revolutionary discipline. Instead, we see largely failure and conflict, small obstacles turn into larger ones, and soldiers who lack the comradeship and willingness to sacrifice of the Cuban Revolutionaries. In Part One, the terrain opens up to the armies in a physical sense as they command more of the land; in Part Two, frames end up constricted as the landscape closes in around them (this framing is amplified the tightening aspect ratio, which shifts from 2.35 to 1.78). In Cuba, comrades join the struggle, and live up the challenges of being a revolutionary. In Bolivia, fighters fight with each other, disobey orders, fail to offer themselves to the cause. Where the Cuban Revolution marches forward toward victory, the Bolivian struggle stumbles repeatedly, never making it much further than the endless slog of preparation for a revolution that fails to start:

It’s not just the frame that closes down in the second part of Che. The color palette descends to a tone of browns and darker greens, contrasted with the verdant forests and open fields of Cuba in Part One. The forest canopy encloses Che’s troops underneath its shade, changing the light to a scale of grays and blues and contracting space vertically to match the horizontal collapse of the frame. Light strikes more harshly, set against the heavier shadows where action occurs. In contrast to airy openness of Part One, Part One is all chiaroscuro and contrast:

Like Part One, this film is primarily an analytical document, but the final battle is perhaps the only moment at which it delves into actual military analysis rather than analysis of strategy or tactics. The lesson here is not a revelation, but a forgone conclusion: the final battle that leads to Che's capture is the inevitable victory of massive force against immense will.

Soderbergh’s Che is both a model and a cautionary tale for commitment to a cause. The soldiers of the Cuban Revolution depended on faithfulness to the cause and to each other as their strength; unable to instill this fidelity in his Bolivian recruits, Che’s South American effort failed despite his own force of will. Total commitment may be a necessary precondition for revolution, but it is not sufficient; Che’s “hasta la muerte” commitment was, inevitably, a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The complete Che is currently available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.


Steven SoderberghHistory Lessons
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