Directed By Ron Howard
Imagine Entertainment et al.
Che Parts 1 and 2
Directed By Steven Soderbergh
Telecinco Cinema, et al.
Fun? Yes, but not quite with either former President Richard Milhous Nixon or Marxist revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the two current movies carrying their names. Both films, however, are well worth seeing.
Frost/Nixon is lots of fun — just not with the former president, who’s nowhere in evidence. There is a man called Richard Nixon (played by distinguished stage and screen veteran Frank Langella), and British television personality and talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) is trying to revive his flagging career by securing an interview with the former president three years after he resigned under a cloud of impeachment.
The real Frost did indeed interview the real Nixon, but Frost/Nixon has less to do with history than with Hollywood. It’s a David-and-Goliath tale in the best movie tradition, dressed in the clothes and names of real people. Richard Nixon may have been the most charmless politician in U.S. history — and as fine an actor as Langella is, he can’t quite turn off the charisma. He makes Nixon more attractive than he was, while the screenplay makes him rather more ethical, and both Sheen and the screenplay portray Frost as an intellectual, moral and political lightweight. Instead of being a villain, Langella’s Nixon becomes Frost’s worthy opponent, a doomed but almost noble figure with little in common with the man he’s portraying.
See it anyway — if you can ignore the inaccuracies, it’s a crackling good story of the search for truth vs. the business of entertainment, with fine performances by Kevin Bacon, Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt as, respectively, Nixon aide Jack Brennan and Frost colleagues James Reston Jr. and Bob Zelnick.
No one will ever describe Che as a crackling good story. Drawn from Guevara’s own works, Steven Soderbergh’s reverent, two-part, four-hourplus account of Guevara’s major role in the Cuban revolution and his doomed attempt to replicate that revolution in Bolivia is documentary in tone and glacial in pace.
Part 1, based on Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, begins with the fateful 1955 Mexico City meeting between Fidel Castro (Demian Bechir) and the young Argentine doctor Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) (known as “Che” for his habit of calling almost everyone by that Argentine equivalent of “dude”). Castro was seeking support for his July 26 Movement to oust Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista; Guevara was seeking a home for his revolutionary dreams. The next year they sailed with 80 troops to Cuba, where they launched a military campaign in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Most of Part 1 relates that campaign, including the strategic coups that led to Guevara’s promotion to comandante and culminating in the revolutionary forces’ decisive 1958 victory at the eastern Cuban city of Santa Clara.
Part 2 skips ahead to 1964 and a series of pro-Cuban speeches Guevara made in New York City, after which he essentially disappeared from public view. He had in fact gone to the Congo to support guerrillas there — an episode omitted from the movie — but left Africa and traveled clandestinely to Bolivia to help bring about a Cuban- style revolution there. Bolivia was not Cuba, however — for one thing, the Bolivian left failed to support Guevara’s campaign, and, perhaps more disastrously, the CIA was present in force to prevent revolution. The campaign failed, and in October 1967 Guevara was captured by CIA and Bolivian Army forces and executed by the Bolivians. Guevara told that story in his posthumously published Bolivian Diary, on which Soderbergh based Part 2.
More historically accurate than Frost/Nixon by an order of magnitude, Che nevertheless contains several serious omissions. The film focuses almost entirely on Che the soldier and military strategist at the expense of Che the revolutionary theorist and intellectual. Also, perhaps because of Soderbergh’s uncritical reliance on Che’s own works (and despite Del Toro’s intense performance and almost non-stop on-screen presence), Che the character remains elusive, more monumental than human. By ending the Cuban narrative in 1959, Soderbergh avoids confronting Che’s role in the campaign of “revolutionary justice” that followed, dealing out death sentences to scores (if not hundreds) of Batista followers and counter-revolutionaries. The movie also hints at Guevara’s reputation as a fierce disciplinarian in the field but skirts any explicit depiction of it.
All in all, Che is a better history of two revolutionary efforts than of one man at their center, but certainly valuable for all those who never learned that history, or enjoy reliving at least the victorious parts of it. Frost/Nixon isn’t history at all, but not a bad afternoon at the movies.