January 26, 2010

Justify My Netflix: Che

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

Che

Today's movie: Che, 2008 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because this might be the biggest and most expensive movie of Steven Soderbergh's career, a lush four-hour biography of the infamous Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara; yet it came and went from American theatres in 2008 without most people even realizing its existence, which has always made me curious as to why.

The reality: As you would expect from Soderbergh, a higher-than-average biopic, yet still feeling by-the-numbers at several points; but then again, there's really only so many ways you can even do a biopic about a famed military figure, so I think it's only fair to cut Soderbergh a little break for Che feeling like so many of the others at so many points. No, what's really shocking is to see a high-budget, grandly beautiful Hollywood-style epic in which America's traditional enemies are being treated not just like heroes but almost like infallible gods; and it's this I'm sure, more than anything else, that made Che such a bomb in American theatres when it first came out, which when combined with its mostly Spanish dialogue is what killed it for good. (Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of its $60 million budget came from European companies.) And indeed, it's important to remember that this film (which can be screened as two separate two-hour movies as well) deliberately only covers the very first major political event of Guevera's life (the successful overthrow of the US-backed Batista dictatorship in Cuba) and the last (the unsuccessful revolution in Bolivia a few years later, in which Guevara was captured and executed by the CIA), because Soderbergh means for this epic to treat its subject as almost a deity, and it's hard to paint someone like a deity by concentrating on his years behind a desk wearing a suit and pushing new land reform laws, which is exactly what Guevara did in the years between these revolutions. And that decision of course came after Soderbergh and actor Benicio del Toro did almost a decade of intense research on the topic, including personal interviews with nearly everyone still alive who were in the jungles with him, and came to realize that these people still mostly think of Guevara in godlike terms themselves.

It's a gutsy decision, to portray someone like this in the glowing terms he's thought of by his comrades, even while he is still thought of by many in the US as a dirty violent commie terrorist; and obviously Soderbergh paid for this decision, with the film eventually only screening in eleven American cities and unbelievably garnering not even a single Oscar nomination (not even in any technical categories), when usually such visually rich historical biopics tend to go around eating up Oscars left and right. Its astonishingly naked snub by most American cultural gatekeepers makes it just that much more important as a global artistic statement, and I'm convinced that in the future, historians will point to this and Avatar as the moment that mainstream society decided it had had quite enough with the idea of the US being the world's unchecked police force and cultural arbiter. I encourage you to watch this movie with those things in mind.

Strangest piece of trivia: Matt Damon puts in a cameo as a Christian missionary living out in the jungle; and yes, all his dialogue is in Spanish too.

Worth your time? Yes, for everyone but teabaggers

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:04 AM, January 26, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |