Menu

Fun with Dick and Che

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Jan 15, 2009

Frost/Nixon
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.

Fun with Dick and Che

Judith Mahoney Pasternak Jan 2, 2009

Frost/Nixon
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 there’s the rub). It’s 1977, three years since Nixon resigned the presidency under threat of impeachment. British television personality and talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) is trying to secure an interview with Nixon that he hopes will revive his flagging career by achieving the decade’s Holy Grail of journalism, a confession of wrongdoing by the former president.

 

That’s the genially fraudulent premise of the film. The real David Frost did indeed interview the real Richard 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. An anomaly at the heart of the Nixon story dooms any claim the film might have to historical fidelity: Although politics and acting are both deeply rooted in the ability to please a crowd, 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 tragic figure with little in common with the man he’s allegedly portraying.

 

See it anyway—if you can ignore the fact that he’s called Richard Nixon, 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’s colleague’s James Reston Jr. and Bob Zelnick (along with an odd caricature by Toby Jones of Nixon’s legendary agent, “Swifty” Lazar).

 

No one will ever describe Che as a crackling good story. Drawn from Che Guevara’s own works, Steven Soderbergh’s reverent, two-part, four-hour-plus account of Guevara’s major role in the Cuban revolution and his doomed attempt to replicate that revolution in Bolivia is documentary in its tone and glacial in its pace.

 

Part 1, based on Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, begins with the fateful 1955 meeting in Mexico City between the Cuban Fidel Castro (Demian Bechir) and the young Argentine doctor Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), known as “Che” (for his habit of calling almost everyone else 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 eastern Sierra Maestra mountains. Most of Che Part 1 relates that campaign, including the strategic coups that led to Guevara’s promotion to Comandante and culminating in the decisive 1958 victory by the revolutionary forces at the city of Santa Clara in eastern Cuba.

 

Part 2 skips ahead to 1964 and a series of pro-Cuban speeches and appearances Guevara made in New York City at the United Nations and to the media, after which he essentially disappeared from public view. He had in fact gone to the Congo to support guerrilla troops 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 U.S. CIA was present in force to prevent revolution. The campaign failed, and in October 1967 Guevara was captured by combined 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 of Che.

 

More historically accurate than Frost/Nixon by an order of magnitude, Che nevertheless contains several serious omissions. Movies, alas, are better at depicting action than thought; and Che 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 heavy and uncritical reliance on Che’s own works (and despite Del Toro’s intense performance and his presence onscreen for almost every moment of both parts of Che), 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 and consolidated the military phase of the revolution, 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 of the men at their center, but certainly valuable for all those who never learned that history, or have forgotten it, 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.

© Judith Mahoney Pasternak 2008

Comments are closed.