Soderbergh: Historically Illiterate or Willfully Ignorant?

In a new interview, Steven Soderbergh, the incredibly overrated Hollywood director whose new paean to the disgusting Che Guevara is getting a lot of attention these days, claims an ignorance of history that, if willful, smacks of seeking to avoid ugly facts — and if not, is just plain dumb.

When I started, though, I had a blank slate, which was either a perfect way to start, or a terrible way to start. I really didn’t know anything, and I’m not Latino, so I was truly a kind of agnostic about Che.

Agnostic? Now imagine if someone described himself as “agnostic” toward, say, Joseph Stalin. Moreover, whatever else he was, Che Guevara was a major historical figure, so not knowing anything about him should be a source of embarrassment to any allegedly educated adult.

Soderbergh portrays the making of his film as a process of discovery on its subject, for which he should be congratulated. Yet his description of this “process” seems selective and confused. Soderbergh’s explanation of his treatment of the most infamous episode in Che’s life — his directing of firing squads at the La Cabaña prison– meanders between meaningless contortions, antiseptic amorality, and self-congratulation at his talking to detractors.

I’m going to Miami tomorrow, and you know, there’s a lot of discussion about what happened after the revolution at La Cabaña, and why isn’t there more of that. It’s interesting to talk about. I like to talk about it. There are obviously people who are very anti-Che and for whom there’s just no amount of atrocity you could show that would satisfy them.

He is a murderer to them. He is irredeemable, and it’s hard. And sometimes you can have a reasonable conversation about it, and I can talk to them about context. And I can talk to them about balance and my reasons for showing the two periods that I show, and addressing the issues of the executions in the way we do. But some people literally can’t… Like I was having a discussion with this journalist in Europe, and he said, “I don’t know how you can make this film and not address the executions.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “Well, you know, those things happened.” And I said, “It’s in the film. It’s in the UN. He says in a close-up, ‘We execute people. We’ve never denied it, and we’re going to keep executing people because this is a fight to the death.'” I go, “Did you not see that?” And he was like, “I don’t remember that.” And I thought, “Wow. Wow. How do you not remember that?” The point being that Che knew that killing is part of this, and he was willing to kill and willing to be killed. So now it just becomes a matter of balance.

Balance? Again, imagine the reaction if someone sought to bring “balance” to a cinematic treatment of the Gulag.

In the end, Soderbergh comes across as the kind of self-styled intellectual who would minimize atrocities by depicting their authors as “complicated” figures — as if the notion that murdering your political opponents is wrong weren’t in fact simple.

For a dose of sanity, see Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s book. The Che Guevara Myth. As Vargas Llosa noted in a Wall Street Journal letter to the editor last summer:

While it is true that he executed hundreds “from the Batista regime,” he also executed people not connected to the regime. Javier Arzuaga, the Basque chaplain who served at “La Cabaña” at the time, told me that among the 800 prisoners there were some journalists, businessmen and merchants.

Guevara sent many young Latin Americans to their deaths thinking they were martyrs for a secular religion. With the exception of Cuba, every revolution he set up was crushed, including guerrilla efforts in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Haiti, and his homeland, Argentina, where Guevara’s followers brought about a military reaction that cost tens of thousands of lives. He also meddled in the Congo in 1965, where he allied himself with two butchers—Pierre Mulele and Laurent Kabila. Eventually, he had to flee the country. His fatal incursion in Bolivia failed to ignite a peasant revolution and caused the deaths of many companions, as well as his own.

Guevara’s other feats include setting up forced labor camps (Guanahacabibes, 1961). He helped turn Cuba into a Soviet puppet, and he ruined the island’s economy, first as head of the Central Bank, and then as minister of industry by diverting resources to industries that collapsed soon after they were created. He also reduced the sugar harvest (Cuba’s mainstay) by half, thereby creating the need for severe food rationing.

In the end, Che’s global revolution-making cost him his own life at an early age. In this regard, his admirers have a point that he left this world with much unfulfilled potential: Imagine how many more people he could have killed.