Making a movie about the twentieth century's most idolized radical icon has consequences for a filmmaker. Suddenly formerly-unnoticed leftist trends in previous films show up more clearly. Further, reporters are likely to pose probing questions asking the filmmaker to explain just what he believes and why he would make such a picture.
Since he helped jumpstart the '90s independent film revolution with 1989's "sex, lies, and videotape" the prolific Steven Soderbergh has emerged as one of modern cinema's most fascinating visionaries.
With his newest film, though, Soderbergh finds himself in the middle of a very different revolution with much more unpleasant consequences. This month filmgoers will have the opportunity to see Benicio Del Toro play Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the 20th century's most famous Stalinist executioner in the four hour epic "Che." The film opened December 12 in New York and Los Angeles to ensure eligibility for this year's Academy Awards. It will expand this month to additional markets and has also been split to be shown in two parts. In a move similar to recent Soderbergh films, "Che" will be available as a "video on demand" purchase through all major cable and satellite providers.
The problem for Soderbergh is that he's an auteur. Since the '60s, film critics and aficionados have almost uniformly embraced the "auteur theory." In this mode of film appreciation you follow the career of individual writers, directors, or producers and see themes and patterns emerge. One film relates to another and you get into the "director's vision." Now Soderbergh has crafted a love letter to the left's most popular icon and a pattern of leftist themes can emerge more clearly in a reading of his produced and directed films.
After the initial success of "sex, lies, and videotape" Soderbergh wandered around in the cinematic wilderness for much of the '90s, directing unsuccessful misfires ("King of the Hill," "Kafka," "Underneath") and odd, low-budget experiments ("Schizopolis.") Two more successful crime thrillers in the late '90s – "Out of Sight" and "The Limey" – lent him the stronger grounding to make the two films that would prove he was not a one hit wonder.
In 2000 Soderbergh released two films, both of which brought him Academy Award nominations for best director: "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." He would win the Oscar for "Traffic." Both films had left-wing themes. "Erin Brockovich" told the "true" story of a far-Left attorney, portrayed by Julia Roberts as a sympathetic single mother who, through hard work and ingenuity, was instrumental in the biggest settlement ever in a direct-action lawsuit. The film embraced the common Hollywood narrative of a noble "common person" triumphing over an evil corporation deliberately poisoning the innocent. "Traffic" attacked the war on drugs from a left-wing perspective with three interconnected stories. One plot thread featured Michael Douglas as a conservative politician who only came to realize the error in his position when his own daughter became an addict who prostituted herself to pay for her habit.
This success gave Soderbergh the ability do whatever he wanted. He founded the production company Section Eight with George Clooney who he'd befriended on "Out of Sight." The first film from the company by Soderbergh would be decidedly mainstream and would allow for the funding of less commercial projects. The fun 2001 heist flick "Ocean's Eleven," a remake of the Rat Pack classic, would star Clooney and generate $183 million and two similarly profitable sequels. On first viewing, the "Ocean's" trilogy seem like apolitical entertainments. When considered in the context of leftist themes some strange questions emerge. Why is it that the villain in all three pictures is a despicable, rich capitalist? Is it coincidence that the third film, "Ocean's Thirteen," involves a plot by Danny Ocean's gang to rig the games in Al Pacino's casino, so that the evil owner loses $500 million in one night? The whole premise is to redistribute the money away from the corrupt rich guy...who earned it.
In the films that Soderbergh didn't make himself but instead decided to produce through Section Eight, we see this pattern continue. In 2002 there was "Far From Heaven," a revisionist, Douglas Sirk-style film that looked at racism and homophobia in the 1950s. In 2005, audiences got a veiled jab at the Bush administration with "Good Night and Good Luck," a Clooney-directed, one-sided depiction of McCarthyism. That year also brought "Syriana," an anti-Iraq War film in the style of "Traffic" that advanced the left's "no blood for oil" argument. For 2006, "A Scanner Darkly" adapted a paranoid, drug-addled story by '60s countercultural writer Phillip K. Dick. And one of the best films of 2007, "Michael Clayton" featured Clooney as a cynical lawyer who discovers a corporation's guilt in a class action lawsuit that bares similarities to that of "Erin Brockovich." "Michael Clayton" goes further than reality would allow with Brockovich, featuring a corporation so driven in its pursuit of profit that it hires assassins to kill those who threaten it. Like Soderbergh's directed films, these Section Eight productions are fantastic pictures in any critical measure – artistically crafted, well acted, often entertaining, and undeniably left-leaning.
The leftist tendency to smash working traditions and evolved, functioning systems finds an intriguing expression in Soderbergh's business model. In 2005, Soderbergh released "Bubble" a low-budget thriller he directed, filmed, and edited. The film was simultaneously released in theaters and through "video on demand." It arrived on DVD a few days later. This flies in the face of the conventional strategy of releasing a film into theaters exclusively before expanding into other venues in later months. Soderbergh is contracted to do more of these "simultaneous release" films. The strategy didn't really work for "Bubble," one of Soderbergh's least commercially successful films (and deservedly so).
This radical tendency for experimentation finds further expression in many of these smaller Soderbergh pictures. When he's not trying to make a profit Soderbergh loves to have his actors improvise or to adopt a loose, fly-on-the-wall camera approach. In "Schizopolis" he demonstrates an affection for that all too common leftist habit of deconstructing narrative and conventional structure until it reaches incomprehensibility.
The marginal success of "Bubble" has been characteristic of Soderbergh's recent non-"Ocean," directed work. In 2002, he did the experimental "Full Frontal" and the underrated sci-fi romance "Solaris." In 2004, he contributed the short "Equilibrium" to the three-part film "Eros," an anthology of erotically-themed shorts. In 2006, he released "The Good German," a film made to look like a black and white 1940s film noir. None of these films drew very much attention or box office. The subject matter of his upcoming films might be more successful. "The Informant" is another anti-corporate film, this time a black comedy starring Matt Damon as a whistleblower. "The Girlfriend Experience," Soderbergh's current project in development, is to be another micro-budgeted venture, this time starring porn star Sasha Grey as an expensive call girl.
All of these pieces on the table, what is to be made of Soderbergh the auteur?
He claims that he doesn't agree with Guevara's actions and ideas. In an interview with the film gossip website Ain't it Cool News Soderbergh noted that Guevara despised films and artists. He said, "Well, first of all, I wouldn't be walking the red carpet at Cannes, if I believed a twentieth of what he believes." At Cannes he told the press corp, "I'm not personally invested in building him up or tearing him down."
After a showing of "Che" at the New York Film Festival in October he showed his hand:
I don't think the economic policy that flows from Marxist-Leninist doctrine works...It's an ideology that worked in a very specific place, in a very specific time, in an industrialized situation. Mostly it works on paper because as soon as you start adding human beings to it, it falls apart. Do I support his ideas when a system is in place in which profit is only possible through the exploitation of the weak and the poor? I'd say, yeah, I want to see that eradicated. But his methodology, and his economic belief system, I don't think work.
His answer reveals why he devoted so much time and energy to make a film about Guevara, and why a totalitarian sociopath still holds so much meaning for the left. For Soderbergh, Guevara was wrong about the solution and the method, but correct in diagnosing the problem.
Guevara's leftist fans can forgive his violence and failed Stalinism because they agree with his overall mission of destroying capitalism and America. Toward that misguided goal Guevara fought harder than any figure the left has ever known. Such a feat is apparently enough to warrant a four-hour-long epic from one of the most talented filmmakers working today.