One of last year's most remarkable on-screen performances came from the Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro, in his role as the revolutionary fighter, author, physician and posthumous revolutionary poster boy Che Guevara. The film that Del Toro starred in was one of the most singular of last year: a two-part epic directed by Steven Soderbergh. Del Toro's stunning central performance was rewarded with the best acting prize when the film premiered at Cannes last year. Che attracted a great deal of critical attention and though reviews for such an ambitious project were inevitably mixed, it was widely hailed by many critics as an important and powerful film.
Yet throughout the recent awards season, including the Oscars, Che was largely ignored, Del Toro not even picking up nominations for acting prizes. Of course one could argue that it is less than surprising that Academy voters didn't enjoy watching more than four hours of film, largely in Spanish, much of which consists of a man railing against the evils of American imperialism. But Che's awards-season disappointment, and indeed the story of the film and how it was made, offers instructive insight into the career of the 45-year-old Soderbergh, the man behind such populist classics as Erin Brockovich and the Ocean's franchise, critically acclaimed movies including the Oscar-winning Traffic, and challenging, less mainstream work, such as the science-fiction psychodrama Solaris.
Che: Part One, also titled The Argentine, jumps between three important events that highlight Guevara's role in the Cuban revolution: the first is his initial meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico in 1955, when the young Argentinian doctor is persuaded by the charismatic Cuban lawyer to join an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Cuban dictator General Batista in 1956; the second takes place in the months before the successful march to Havana as Guevara struggles with asthma in the rugged countryside; the third takes place in 1964, when, as a member of the Cuban government, he ventured to New York to make a famous speech at the United Nations.
Che: Part Two, or The Guerrilla, opens with a heavily disguised Guevara travelling incognito in and out of Cuba. Then comes a leap in time, after which we find that Guevara, disillusioned with political life, has left Castro's regime and is once again a soldier, this time in the jungles of Bolivia. It is a much more meditative picture that incorporates his capture and execution, and the exhibition of his body after his death.
The idea for the film came about in 1999 when Soderbergh was directing Del Toro in Traffic. The actor told him that he had always dreamed of playing the iconic guerrilla. Soderbergh, who has produced a number of films including Tod Haynes's Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There, agreed to help. While doing research they discovered that Terrence Malick, the legendary director of Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998), had worked as a reporter in Bolivia in 1966, and, as a result, employed him as screenwriter and director. However, the script that Malick wrote proved too expensive to finance and he left to make the 2005 movie The New World.
Soderbergh decided to rework the script and direct the film. This was something of a surprise, as he is not a natural successor to Malick in the same way that, for example, Paul Thomas Anderson clearly comes from the same school of filmmaking as Robert Altman. Indeed, the contrast between the two can be seen in their differing work rate. Malick is just putting the finishing touches to his fifth film in 36 years, while Soderbergh is completing his 20th feature in the same number of years.
However, there are some key ingredients that link both men: they are both mavericks who place a healthy emphasis on aesthetics. That's why Soderbergh was, in fact, a good choice to finish the work that Malick had started. The secret of Soderbergh's success actually lies in his prodigious output. He is not the only director to work at a ferocious rate. The New Yorkers Woody Allen and Spike Lee try to make a film a year. What sets him apart is that his output, in terms of genre, budget and style, is more varied than any other American director working today. Only Japan's prodigious Takashi Miike compares.
It was at Cannes in 1989 that the Atlanta, Georgia-born Soderbergh arrived on the world stage. At the age of 26, he became the youngest director to win the coveted Palme d'Or with his debut film Sex, Lies and Videotape, which he wrote in eight days. It was a landmark film, its success instrumental in launching the American independent cinema boom of the 1990s. Strangely enough, Soderbergh was unable to capitalise on his own success, and made a series of critical and commercial failures after. Kafka and King of the Hill both bombed. The filming of Underneath in 1995 marked a terrible low. Going into the project, Soderbergh felt that the movie was destined to fail. This was not the career he had dreamed of.
Success had seemingly come too soon and Soderbergh made a conscious decision to make what he describes as his "second first movie". Schizpopolis was another commercial failure but it reminded the director of the joy of improvisation and working on projects that were dear to him. Soderbergh had not been to film school and seemed to be learning on the job and, more importantly, learning from his own mistakes. Then, in 1998, he was asked to adapt a movie from a story by an out-of-favour author for the big screen, starring a TV actor and a singer. It seemed like a recipe for disaster. Instead, Soderbergh made the critically acclaimed Out of Sight, based on Elmore Leonard's novel and featuring Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in the lead roles.
The director had hit his stride. In the next two years, the release of The Limey, Erin Brockovich and Traffic confirmed this. These films were brilliantly edited and supremely stylish. As if to prove he could do blockbusters, too, Soderbergh then made Ocean's Eleven, his remake of an almost forgotten Rat Pack adventure. A franchise was born - one that, most importantly, gave Soderbergh a free pass to make any movie he wanted.
Personal and experimental projects, such as Full Frontal and Bubble, followed. He made eclectic choices, such as remaking Andrei Tarkovsky's classic Solyaris (as Solaris) with Clooney in the lead role. He could be formalistic to a fault, as can be seen in his decision to make the Second Word War drama The Good German using only equipment available to filmmakers in the 1940s. It did not matter when these films failed, as he would just make another Ocean's caper to keep the financiers happy. Like Martin Scorsese, Soderbergh had decided that his career would be best served by making "one for them and one for me".
I've met Soderbergh on several occasions. Always sporting square glasses, he is as awkward as he looks and, like Steven Spielberg, is an unapologetic movie geek. Every word he says is deliberate and calculated. He has gone on record as saying: "I recently decided I'm not an originator, I'm a synthesist." What this might mean is that instead of coming up with original ideas, Soderbergh takes elements that have been essayed in film before, by the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Tarkovsy, and tries to use their films to help him find a deeper understanding of the subject. This explains the many remakes he has to his credit.
It's intriguing to see the two Che movies side by side. The first, about the political life of Guevara, feels like a Soderbergh movie. The action jumps back and forth in time, as in Traffic and Out of Sight. The second film clearly tries to ape the style of Malick. It attempts to build an understanding of Guevara by showing his everyday actions, getting across the idea that he was a driven man with strong principles.
The first is clearly the better of the pair, because Soderbergh is more comfortable making this type of film. The Bolivian movie feels strained and strangely cumbersome. At times it seems as if Soderbergh feels obliged to make decisions that he would not ordinarily make in homage to Malick. This side of the director is often frustrating. But then, it's hard to condemn him for. After all, it is this very desire to take risks, reference the past and build on what has gone before that makes Soderbergh such an inimitable filmmaker.