We’ve just finished surveying some of Robert Redford‘s celluloid agitprop. On The Milagro Beanfield War, Lions for Lambs, and The Company You Keep, he was director; on the 2004 film Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles from José Rivera’s script and based on Che Guevara’s memoir of his youthful travels around South America, Redford served as producer. Depicting Che as a sensitive charmer, the film purported to depict the process by which he developed the supposedly noble political “convictions” that ended up making him a hero to millions. In other words, the picture entirely ignored Guevara the cold-blooded, pathological mass murderer and firmly endorsed the thoroughly twisted popular image that led him to become the face on a million T-shirts.
Enthusiastic but clueless critics used words like “charming” and “poetic” to describe the Che movie; A.O. Scott of the New York Times praised it as “a lyrical exploration of the sensations and perceptions from which a political understanding of the world emerges”; with apparent approval, he stated that the film’s closing scenes depicted Che “as a quasi-holy figure, turning away from the corruptions of the world toward a higher purpose.” Some understanding! Some purpose!
At least Roger Ebert didn’t join in the cheering. “Che Guevara,” he wrote, “makes a convenient folk hero for those who have not looked very closely into his actual philosophy, which was repressive and authoritarian….He said he loved the people but he did not love their freedom of speech, their freedom to dissent, or their civil liberties. Cuba has turned out more or less as he would have wanted it to.” Jessica Winter of The Village Voice agreed, noting that the film “politely overlook[ed]” Che’s “totalitarian leanings” and served up hackneyed images of “noble” peasants and “plucky lepers” who in shot after shot “face the camera in a still life of heroic, art-directed suffering.” (The Milagro Beanfield Wars does exactly the same thing.) While the filmmakers didn’t so much as hint that its glamorous hero would go on to become a psychopathic killing machine, they did manage to slam the CIA in the closing credits.
In January 2004, Redford went to Cuba to screen The Motorcycle Diaries for Che’s widow, Aleida, and their children. Aleida pronounced it “excellent.” While Redford was there, Fidel Castro dropped in to see him at the Hotel Nacional. It wasn’t their first meeting: the movie star and the dictator had gone scuba-diving together 16 years earlier, and according to some reports, which described them as “friends,” had met several times – a fact that didn’t exactly endear Redford to the Cuban exile community in the U.S.
And what’s Redford’s latest? We’ll talk about that one next time.