If you pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon, you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. (Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor)
Possibly because of the importance of the French and American Revolutions, and certainly because of the importance of the Russian Revolution, “revolution” has come to occupy a special place in progressive and conservative thinking, a hope for the former and a fear for the latter. In both cases, though, it’s an ideal, an imagined thing. It can be a source of comfort, fear, or criticism (a lament I’ve heard so many times from progressives is “how has there not been a revolution in America yet?”); it can be the basis for real action (a lot of right-wing politics stokes the fear of revolution and acts on that fear) but in any case it stays in the imaginary. Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves and Steven Soderbergh’s Che are both about revolutionary action, not imagination, and they are successful, powerful films because of that; to change up Raymond Chandler’s line about Dashiell Hammett, they give revolution back to the people who commit it.
One way to define revolution, and why the idea persists: it’s the political fulfillment of an ideology, the thing that will create good, according to the ideology’s definition of good. As an image, then, revolution becomes the means to the ultimate ends of the good world–and that’s something incredibly powerful. That power creates dangers: calling for a revolution means calling on people’s idealism, and that idealism can turn disappointed, rancid, even reactionary if the ideals are not fulfilled. There’s a danger of success, too; revolutionaries–all idealists, really–can commit great evil, because they have a vision of the good that justifies it. Despite my affection and respect for Yoda, he had it exactly backwards. The side of good is more seductive, because it offers anyone a free-conduct pass. It allows any action to be excused, because “my cause was right.” (I offer a more rigorous discussion of this point in the postscript.)
Both Night Moves and Che avoid the question of motivation; they are not concerned with the rightness of an ideology but how their characters live it. They are works entirely about the actions of their characters, the how over the why. For both of them, that’s a useful and implicitly critical move. Americans have a revolution at the center of their origin story, and the righteousness of the act always receives more emphasis than the act itself. (It’s the Declaration of Independence that gets remembered, not the list of battles, the negotiations with the French, the debt of Britain.) Perhaps because of that, the most common form of American exceptionalism is the faith that once the righteousness of one’s cause has been established, nothing more needs to be questioned. The intent is all that matters, not how it’s carried out. In Steve Erickson’s words, “I believed like all Americans that intent had to lie at the root of evil, that if one was innocent in his intentions he was innocent in his actions.” (I’ve often argued that the American Revolution barely qualifies as one, and that may be why Americans can be so simplistic when it comes to thinking about revolutions. The real American revolution was the Civil War, and it’s not over yet. Place that at the origin point of American history and you’ll get a more complex story, and a more complex view of revolutions.) The structure of these films leaves out the question of righteousness. The causes were decided outside the scope of the movies; they show what happens.
SPOILERS for both films follow, although I assume you heard how the Cuban Revolution turned out.
Night Moves lives up to its title (and justifies taking it from Arthur Penn’s 1970s classic); it’s a spare, spacious, lean noir, closest in tone and tempo to Winter’s Bone, set in Oregon rather than the Ozarks. There are a lot of moments where the camera just hangs back and looks directly at the characters–Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard)–carrying out a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam. For all that, though, there’s no dead time here and no digressions; every scene ticks the plot forward. Early on, we see a screening of a movie about the destruction of the environment attended by Josh and Dena; that movie ends with “so let the revolution begin. . .an army of individual citizens must rise up and take a stand.” It’s a scene that’s about character and setting (neat, accurate detail of projecting it on a sheet), not explaining or justifying things to us (if Oliver Stone had directed this, thirty minutes would be given over to the destruction caused by hydroelectric dams) and it lays out what Night Moves will do: here is what revolution looks like, here is what happens to three members of that citizen army.
By sticking so closely to what happens and what the characters do, Reichardt can generate a lot of old-school suspense. Trying to purchase 500 pounds of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer with a fake ID can be a huge challenge; Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond create an amazing scene where Dena has to do that and hits one obstacle after another, and works her way around each one. (As the store clerk she has to convince, James le Gros plays an undecidable mix of sinister and indifferent.) Fanning has successfully made the transition from child to adult actress, and has kept her great skill of the former: she can just be a character rather than perform one. Dena comes across as funny (“just breathe, Josh”), smart, and naïve, but Fanning never plays her with any condescension. In counterpoint, there’s a touch of menace to Harmon. He gets a long, beautiful, scary moment where he has to stop the clock on the bomb, and doesn’t, just looks at it–and the second half of the movie gets prefigured right there. Sarsgaard, by the way, is amazing here. He’s a Marine out of the service and an ex-con, and he gives the feeling of someone permanently outside the law, the character of the three who has the least to lose and almost doesn’t care about that. There’s always something a little dangerous about Sarsgaard as an actor (he’s the only thing I remember from Garden State) and Reichardt uses him well here, never letting us find out the answer to the question just how far will he go?
Like the best noirs, the leanness works to create a sense of dread that hangs over everyone; Reichardt evokes the best of Patricia Highsmith, the sense that the entire air has something bad in store for you. The detail with which we see everything that Josh, Dena, and Harmon do heightens the paranoia, because we also get the sense of who could be watching them. She’s a great observer of how people behave (something that becomes decisive in the second half); she can also create the magnificent cinematic shot with the camera mounted on the boat and the dam swinging into place over it at night. I mean cinematic here as literally as possible: that shot needs to be seen in a cinema so you can watch this enormous wall loom above you.
Jesse Eisenberg turns in another performance, like his Mark Zuckerberg, that manages to be both magnetic and off-putting. Josh comes across not just completely closed off, but like he’s been that way for a long time; the complete absence of backstory plays in Reichardt’s favor here. There’s no explanation for why Josh is like this, or how that ties into his plans; there’s only the distance that Eisenberg keeps between himself and everyone. It helps that he continually interacts with such inherently charming performers like Fanning, Katherine Waterston, and Alia Shawkat; they both play up the contrast and make us wonder “why is he avoiding them?” Our own NerdInTheBasement has begun an excellent series on the portrayal of autistic/Asperger’s characters in films, and I find myself wondering if Josh is one of them; Eisenberg gives him the abruptness of someone who doesn’t recognize social cues. Throughout the first half hour, Eisenberg is so distant and Reichardt’s camera so isolating on him that I kept thinking if Josh turned out to be a serial killer or an undercover agent I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
The day after they blow up the dam, the local paper reveals a hiker went missing in the ensuing flood. Josh lives and works in a communal farm, and the owner (Kai Lennox) isn’t at all impressed: “. . .sure, they had a fine point, but one dam? The grid is everywhere, you need to take down like twelve dams to make a difference.” Eisenberg barely reacts, but with Josh the slightest reaction feels like horror. Earlier, Josh and Harmon talked about what would happen, and Josh said “people will start thinking. They have to” and Lennox gives the implicit response to that: “I’m not interested in statements, I’m interested in results.” It’s a charged moment, an argument between characters that don’t know they’re arguing, and it calls up William Vollmann’s discussion of revolution and violence in Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom, and Urgent Means: “Violence cannot be justified, even by the noblest end, should the means be ineffective.” In that moment, Reichardt brings to the surface themes that goes all through the film: did they act because it was right or because it was revolutionary? Did they do the good thing in spite of its violence, or because of it–and how good was it anyway? Reichardt’s focus on character keeps these questions unanswered, which works. Night Moves is a drama, not a polemic for or against violent action: it’s about what Josh, Dena, and Harmon have to live with after what they’ve done.
Like a lot of noir works, Night Moves is formally a tragedy; the hubris of its characters is their failure to realize just how far outside of law and manners their act could take them, and it doesn’t matter if the act was committed over greed, lust, or good. Perhaps the first noir was Macbeth; you see there and here and everywhere in between the same plot element: once you commit a crime, however justified, expect to commit more, and worse. The next day, the reveal that the bomb got someone killed starts a death spiral as all three of them start panicking to different degrees. Dena’s body begins physically revolting (it actually starts before they even set off the bomb), her skin going blotchy and seeming to start wasting away; she’s not talking but it’s clear that she will. Josh grows more unstable and Harmon keeps pushing him to do “whatever you have to do” about Dena. (A great, simple, scary touch: we never see Harmon in the second half of the film, he’s only a voice on a cell phone. I suspect he took off quickly.) Dena’s panic leads to Josh getting exiled from the farm as just his presence can put everyone at risk. The character who started out the most isolated discovers that he can become even more so, that he will have to go even farther outside of society.
Reichardt has compassion for her characters but not mercy, letting us see just how much none of them were ready for this kind of consequence; “just get back to normal” quickly becomes “this is not gonna blow over, man.” When Josh strangles Dena in a sauna, it’s a literal act in night and fog, and entirely out of confusion and panic, not choice. That doesn’t make it any less powerful; as a tragedy, this fate belongs to Josh and not Harmon. Josh’s motives all through the film aren’t clear to us, and I suspect they’re not clear to himself, but he has no way to handle becoming a killer. He goes on the run; in his most open, emotional moment, he near-begs Harmon for the chance to talk, but Harmon will have nothing to do with him. The final scene, placing him in a sporting goods store looking a completely blank form in front of him, not even able to see his reflection anymore, seems like his worst possible fate. That’s tragedy; we know how he got here, and that doesn’t make him any less sympathetic, or terrible.
Night Moves shows one end of the spectrum of revolutionary action, the smallest scale, the single action, revolutionaries who got caught in the first step. Steven Soderbergh’s Che goes to the other end, a 4½ hour war movie in two parts with two settings, a big cast of characters, and even bigger list of scenes (the DVD release has a total of 86 chapters), and it’s all about the revolutionaries who go all the way. As pure filmmaking accomplishment, it’s beyond anything he’s done before or since; he brought in a movie longer than Michael Cimino’s restored cut of Heaven’s Gate (and almost as long as Cimino’s original cut) under budget and in 39 days of shooting. (Of course, Soderbergh did have the benefit of the new portable digital RED camera and no cocaine habit.) He also made his best film. He avoids the mistake of so many biopics and does not give us all of Che’s life, instead covering three crucial moments: the Cuban Revolution of 1957-58 intercut with a few moments from his 1964 visit to New York and the United Nations in part one, and his failed attempt at a revolution in Bolivia that ended in his death in 1967 in part two. It’s as much about Che-as-revolutionary as Marie Antoinette was about Marie-as-queen. Both parts are anchored by a book: Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War for Part One, The Bolivian Diary for Two; put this film together with The Motorcycle Diaries and you get a pretty strong three-part biopic of the origin, rise, and fall of one of the preceding century’s major historical figures.
In Night Moves, the characters go outside of conventional law and morality, and get lost; Che’s revolutionaries find themselves there. Che Guevara understood that, having rejected the codes of everyday society (at one point in Cuba he tells someone “you still think like a colonized person”) he and his fighters needed a moral code to live by, and much of his writing developed that moral and practical code for the revolutionary. His first line in Che in narrative time is “and that coup must be based on principles” and all through the film, he spends so much time keeping his diary, developing his theory and principles of revolution. We will hear, as voiceover, excerpts from Reminiscences all through part one, even over a battle sequence. Night Moves builds to a nearly accidental, confused moment of killing; Che shows revolutionaries killing their own as a necessary, principled act of discipline. (Soderbergh cuts from an execution in 1957 to the UN applauding Che in 1964 in a way that’s as brutal as GoodFellas.)
Che plays in a rhythm that’s tricky and takes a while to get used to. It’s a war film, but a rare one that takes a strategic point of view. Most war films are either romantic, showcasing individual heroism and glory, or tactical, showing what takes place to secure victory in a single battle. Both parts of Che only take the tactical view in the last, massive battles: the taking of Santa Clara (Batista’s last stronghold outside Havana) in Part One and the capture of Che in the Yuro Ravine in Part Two. In both of these sequences, Soderbergh shows what’s happening block by block or tree by tree, and tracks everyone so precisely. In the rest of both parts, he shows everything leading up to that moment, because Che considered every aspect of revolutionary struggle to be equally important. Most war movies emphasize the fighting over everything else, but since Che didn’t neither does Soderbergh, showing education, medical care, internal discipline and executions, solidarity meetings, celebrations, discussions with the peasantry, all with the same weight. Especially in Part One, we’re seeing not just revolution, but a method of revolution (and Che writing that method), something that calls back to The Battle of Algiers; I wonder if in the future people will study Che the way the Black Panthers and counterterrorism forces studied Battle. Soderbergh’s own method has always been to find the one specific, necessary way to shoot a scene; he’s as perfect for this as for Ocean’s 11. He makes Che Part One feel not so much realistic as inevitable. We’re not so much seeing something that happened as the only way something could happen; it’s a film that’s as certain as Che’s voiceovers, or as Che is in 1964. Perhaps we should call it “action recollected in tranquility.”
In shooting the Battle of Santa Clara, Soderbergh manages to be elliptical and precise all at once, checking in with so many developing ministories and keeping a sense of progress going through all of them. (He will do this on a global and movie-length scale in his underrated Contagion.) Just like the rest of Part One, so many things have to happen: gun battles in the streets, the fighters sledgehammering through five adjacent houses to get to a sniper in a church (in his review, Keith Phipps noted how this sequence sums up the entire film: the hard, necessary work of revolution); radio communications with the other cities; derailing a train; the government troops cracking; and a Batistan commander who executes his own, flees, and gets caught in a puddle of his own cowardice. (That wasn’t cowardice!) Soderbergh never overdramatizes anything, not even the death of the young soldier Vaquerito (a moment that would get at least two minutes and some stirring music from any other director), and never slows down either–a single shot of a train track with a rock under it tells us what’s going to happen. (Something worthy of its own essay: Soderbergh always gives great shots of objects in his films.) Soderbergh has been developing this style all through his career, and by showing us only what’s necessary, he makes us pay attention. Like Che, Che appeals to the instinct and the intellect.
For Che, the revolutionary was “the highest stage of humanity” and becoming one meant purging oneself of all other attachments. Che suggests this in an interview sequence of Part One, where he says the most important attribute of a revolutionary is “love–love of humanity, justice, and truth” which is not the same thing as love of individual humans. The guerrillas here don’t aren’t individuated in their personalities in the manner of a traditional war movie but that fits Che’s principle (also stated in an interview scene) “the individual must disappear.” That also fits Soderbergh’s style; this is a movie about practice, not personalities. We really see this in Part Two, as we watch Che grow thinner and sicker, burning down to something essential, haunting the Bolivian hills like a wraith. (There’s your “spectre of Communism.”) Che felt that revolutionaries needed the highest level of self-discipline and self-sovereignty, following the idea in the previous entry in this series that only those who can rule themselves can rule others: the revolutionary cadre would be the nucleus of the new government.
Soderbergh carefully emphasizes revolutionary discipline in the movie, and Benicio del Toro embodies it in his performance. There’s no romance here, no cliché of the passionate Latin guy. (As his future wife Aleida March, Catalina Sandino Moreno plays a developing friendship with del Toro rather than a romance. These two are comrades first, and that makes his departure for Bolivia both believable and touching.) He’s friendly–Soderbergh and del Toro include the biographical touch that Che always greeted everyone by name–but the strongest note of the performance is a fierce, intellectual determination. There’s some good comedy, too, like a moment in Part Two when one of his comrades says “we’ve been in much worse situations than this” and del Toro just gives a really? look. Overall, though, one of Soderbergh’s observations in the supplements forms the base of the performance: “people said of Che, you had to give him your love for free.” It’s del Toro’s strongest and smartest performance.
Good as del Toro is, it’s the ownage of Demián Bichir as Fidel Castro that’s essential to the film and its meaning. In the first scene, everyone’s talking in a Mexico City apartment and waiting for Fidel (I’m convinced Soderbergh amplified his knock just a bit for a more theatrical entrance) and from then on, Bichir just steals every scene he’s in. (Rodrigo Santoro, best known as Who the Hell Is Paolo? on Lost, does pretty well as Raul Castro too.) He’s charming, funny, smart, he’s got the beard down perfectly, but most of all he’s astonishingly self-confident. Bichir’s genius is that he doesn’t develop at all; he may be in the jungle in Part One but in his mind, he’s already the President of Part Two, giving instructions on how to make the perfect mojito at a party. Whenever Fidel puts his hand back, he’s damn sure that some underling will put what he wants in it, a gesture that’s both precisely funny and a necessary insight into the character–it’s exactly like Burt Lancaster saying “match me, Sidney” in Sweet Smell of Success. Che may be a great revolutionary, but Fidel is a ruler and guess which one is still alive as of this writing. Among other things, Bichir’s Fidel knows how to manage people, especially Che, knowing when to give him power and when to withhold it. At one point in Part One, he sidelines Che by making him train the guerrillas “to sharpen his political skills” and after that, Che comes back with a lot more instinctive authority. Fidel’s absence in Part Two makes us feel from the start that the Bolivian adventure will fail. (One of the chapter titles in Jon Lee Anderson’s commentary for Part Two is “No Fidel.”) Che has been criticized for leaving out the brutality of the Castro regime, but that leaves the door open for Soderbergh to come back to theatres with another historical epic: Fidel, starring Bichir. One can hope.
Part One is all expanding motion, the army getting bigger and moving farther, the revolutionary influence growing (and we see it as its maximum in the New York scenes); Part Two is all contraction, beginning (as our own Narrator has often noted) with the frame itself closing in, going from Part One’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio to 1.78:1 and the number of guerrillas steadily dwindling. Soderbergh said he used classical setups and the wide frame in Part One to emphasize the recollected, methodical nature of Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War; in Part Two, he goes handheld for the Passion of Che Guevara.
Soderbergh does so much in this film by avoiding the clichés of war and biopics (in the supplements, he says that’s just what he wanted to do) and that really lands in Part Two. The first twenty minutes or so are beautiful and peaceful as Che travels to a training camp and Bolivia and sets it up, and after that, nothing works. There are no grand battles or climaxes here, no build to the finale, just the stations of failure. Che fails to get the Bolivian Communist Party on his side, fails to get the peasantry to sympathize, radios fail and can only receive, soldiers fail to desert, strikes by the miners fail, information and plans get captured by the Bolivian army, his group becomes split in two and never reunites, and the guerrillas get killed one by one by one. Soderbergh shifts from the deep greens and oranges of Part One to desaturated blues and whites, and shoots many if not most of the scenes on hillsides; the guerrillas are literally off-balance without even a stable horizon line for much of Part Two. The image isn’t just closing in but has turned hostile, just as the nation. Alberto Iglesias’ score goes from the military drums and drive of Part One to a more edgy ambient feel, with a recurring dissonant drone. When Che arrives in Bolivia, Soderbergh places “Day 1” on the screen and keeps that going. It feels like a countdown, the opposite of the chyrons in Part One that gave the mileage to Havana and tracked Che closing in on his goal–in Bolivia, he will be captured and executed about fifty miles away from where he starts. Part One was all action in the classical sense, as characters make choices and that changes what happens. In a Passion, though, the choices have already been made and it’s only about the walk to the death.
If there’s a choice in Bolivia, Che makes it at the beginning of Part Two, breaking with Mario Monje (Lou Diamond Phillips) and the Bolivian Communists. Monje says conditions aren’t right in Bolivia for revolution; Che replies that “anywhere in the world men are being exploited by men, conditions are right.” It’s an incredibly arrogant line, and del Toro delivers it while in a kind of arrogant slouch that’s taken directly from a photograph. You can hear in that line Che’s view of revolution as something universal, something that can take place anywhere; you can also literally see Che’s sense of himself as revolutionary royalty (a few scenes letter, he’s readying letters to Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell), and his sense that Monje isn’t. Phillips gives Monje a gotta-sit-through-the-sermon weariness, like he knows from the start Che won’t listen. He warns the guerrillas that they will be seen as foreigners, as enemies, and that “you will die heroically but you have no hope of achieving victory.” From then on, that’s exactly what happens; Che can’t get any traction with the people and progresses from veiled threats (“put a little fear in him”) to compensation no one cares about (after taking food and supplies from the farmer Honorato, they leave money, and Honorato rightly says “where am I going to spend this?”) to, by the end, outright robbery. Luis Bredow plays Honorato so well; like a lot of Bolivians, he’s a man caught between two groups, the guerrillas and the army, both threatening him. Che tells Monje that “if we learned something in Cuba, it’s that a popular uprising that isn’t backed by armed struggle has no chance of taking power” and the rest of Part Two demonstrates that the reverse is true.
The final battle in the Yuro Ravine plays as counterpart to the Battle of Santa Clara in Part One, and it’s just as good; you can compare these two extended scenes to the street battles in Heat and the second season of True Detective, where the first one tracks an expanding action and the second a contracting one. The scene begins with a moment worthy of Kurosawa or Malick as the camera slowly turns through at least 180 degrees and reveals the army battalion working its way through the hills; Soderbergh has noted this would be impossible without the RED camera. Once the shooting starts, he shows us space and distance so well, as the guerrillas have to fight back and somehow slip away unnoticed at the same time; there’s a great shot of one of them shooting from the cover of what looks like a dead tree. Just as the expansion of the fighting in Santa Clara was the conclusion of all that happened in Part One, this is the final closing-in of Part Two; some guerrillas get away but Che does not, shot in the leg and pinned down, finally, in an open space.
Che’s execution, a few scenes later, comes as the film’s strangest moment, so it’s fitting that it comes at the end. Place this kind of thing any earlier and it’s distracting: we don’t see del Toro at all. Soderbergh just stands with the camera pointed at the executioner, putting him and us in his place as literally as he can. As the shots ring out, he and the camera fall as Che does, and there’s nothing on the soundtrack but breathing. Soderbergh shifts focus with Che’s last exhale and then swings the camera up to look at the light. It feels so much like the last images of The Last Temptation of Christ, and I wonder if this is how Soderbergh imagines his last moment.
The answer to the question “why hasn’t there been a revolution in America?” underlies all of Night Moves and Che: because revolutions are fucking hard work. (Two corollaries: revolution does not arise simply because people are oppressed, and no revolution succeeds if those oppressed people don’t want it. If revolution is the fulfillment of ideals, revolutionaries need to ask themselves “whose ideals?”) After watching these films, I find it simply impossible to ever use the word “revolution” lightly again. (I also now have a visceral hatred of anyone who wears a Che T-shirt. Well, maybe the Onion version I can accept.) Neither film takes the cynical and unhistorical position that nothing can ever be changed, no ideals can ever be fulfilled; revolution is, absolutely, possible. This is what it looks like, though: difficult, long, painful, with the minimum success in direct proportion to sacrifice. That sacrifice will be not just material, but a sacrifice of values as well; once you decide to detonate 1500 pounds of explosive, the phrase “no one will get hurt” can’t be part of your vocabulary. These films are cautionary tales, warnings really: however unjust it might be, social convention has a force beyond law; once you go outside of it, you’re not promised a chance to come back; revolutionaries die and revolutionaries kill, and anyone who hasn’t accepted that had best steer clear.
Che Guevara could be called an ideal revolutionary, or better yet, a revolutionary idealist. For him, revolution was Revolution, one of Plato’s Forms, something perfect that men should seek to attain–again, the highest stage of humanity. Part One ends with a flashback, comparable to the one that ends Kill Bill vol. 1, to Che’s first meeting with Fidel in Mexico City, as Che gets a promise from Fidel that after Cuba, he can “bring the revolution to all of Latin America.” For Che, revolution was something that could take place anywhere; he sought to create the Revolution in Cuba and Africa and finally Bolivia. For him, the struggle between capitalism and Communism was a truly global struggle of ideas–and that’s exactly how the Americans in power, so far away from his death, saw it too. Those Americans saw democracy and capitalism as things that could take place anywhere, just as Che saw revolution. In his last communication out of Bolivia, Che proclaimed “let us have two, three, many Vietnams” and so many Americans thought the same thing, just that Vietnam would be a new site of democracy rather than revolution. Che’s opposite number in the American government at the time would be the wonderfully named Walt Whitman Rostow, who came running into a meeting to announce his death: “They finally got the SOB. The last of the romantic guerrillas.”
It’s to Soderbergh’s great credit that Che and Che fundamentally disagree here. The two-part structure shows that there is no such thing as Revolution, only specific political struggles that can succeed or fail. We can see, in the action and the voiceover from Reflections in part one Che’s ideal Revolution, and then we see it completely not happen in part two. Bolivia was not Cuba, though; there were not two, three, many Vietnams. Che couldn’t see that Bolivia was not Cuba (and how necessary Fidel was) any more than Walt Rostow could see that Vietnam was not postwar Germany–or that George W. Bush’s advisers could see that Iraq was not revolutionary America. Practice is the enemy of ideology, which depends on sweeping, powerful generalizations, and Soderbergh may be the most practice-oriented of all contemporary filmmakers. If it’s a hagiography, Che is a strange one, one that glorifies the saint and challenges the faith.
Postscript: because we live in a time when protest and direct action is on the rise, and because I do not wish, ever, to present only negative comments on that action, I offer here two questions for ethical actors. I believe always in the right and necessity of individuals to choose actions for themselves and to develop their own sense of good; show me this is wrong and I’ll still believe it. I don’t wish to answer these questions, only that those who act for social change ask them of themselves. Among the political movements of now, we’re seeing a lot of discussion of means, ends, tactics, and strategies and this is to their great credit. (The continuing evolution of Black Lives Matter gives me a shit-ton of hope for the future.) I intend this as a contribution to that discussion, nothing more. (These questions, both in form and content, owe something to Vollmann’s Checklist for Revolutionaries in Rising Up and Rising Down.)
Activism forms communities, and that can be both benefit and danger. Che and Che articulate something so many have experienced: the sense of love and community that comes from working towards a common goal. (Night Moves shows this well in Josh’s farming collective, but doesn’t articulate it as explicitly. It doesn’t need to.) There’s a danger in that, though: maintaining the community–its existence, boundaries, and common values–can become more important than achieving that goal. In terms of common values, negative values are apparently easier to describe than positive ones: that is, it’s easier to say what one is against rather than what one is for. Really all of this can be expressed as the danger that a community of activists will degenerate into a community that agrees on what it’s against, not a community that acts to achieve something.
Change takes time and effort and happens across multiple fronts, another lesson of Che, Che, and Night Moves. Because of all that, it’s easy for tactics to overwhelm strategy, for the pursuit of the immediate goal to obscure or even to work against the long-term one. What Vollmann called “urgent means” are disruptive, dangerous, and necessarily so; you can’t create a future, better society without damage to the existing one. That doesn’t mean that every disruptive act helps establish something better. Tactics, especially violent tactics, can wind up doing more harm than good, especially long after the violence has been committed. Even worse, violence and disruption can become an end in itself, seeking only to destroy; one of Vollmann’s principles holds that a revolution becomes unjustified “above all, when it assigns violence no limit.”
These problems can be avoided by answering the question what am I trying to establish? Not “what am I against?” or even “what are my values?” but “what world am I trying to create?” Answering this question is a necessary precursor to acting effectively and acting ethically. Practically, the person and the community then has a specific set of goals can act towards them, and more importantly, has a standard for knowing whether or not their acts succeed or fail. They can plan, adjust, refine what they’re doing because they have a goal in mind; they have a great advantage over the person who wants only “to do good” without knowing what that good is. I freely admit that I was worried in the first few months of Black Lives Matter, because “black lives matter” is an unmeasurable goal, a great hashtag (i.e., a great marker of a community), a great ideal, but not much else. However, they’ve apparently made the effective choice that since the people, policies, and laws they wish to change are all at the local level, they will act at the local level (Deray McKesson’s run for mayor of Baltimore, for example) and stay out of national media attention. That’s promising.
Ethically, answering this question allows a discussion of “do the ends justify the means?”; the ends and the means have to be known first before this discussion is even possible. In Night Moves, the characters assumed (they didn’t discuss, they assumed) their end justified their means until they found out how far their means went. In Che, Che began the story by declaring the need for principles and ended it by leading a band robbing the Bolivian peasantry. The danger of doing good is committing bad in the process, and the more idealistic the good, the greater that risk is. So, a second necessary question is what won’t I do? Acting effectively means knowing what you will do, acting ethically means knowing what you won’t. This question has to be asked and answered before acting, because in action the temptation will always be to act.
These two questions interact with each other. Knowing what you’re trying to establish necessarily puts limits on your actions; any act that runs against what you want to create has to be severely questioned, if not abandoned. (A question that comes up in Night Moves, and in really any ethical discussion of action: is there another way to do this, another set of means to the same ends?) And knowing what your own limits are lets you know how far you’re willing to go, what you can actually establish. Without that sense of limits, ethical actors can come to two bad ends: going farther than they or their community can live with, or not going far enough to achieve the goals they declared.
People can achieve their goals, even when those goals are the transformation of an entire society. I remain nearly as awestruck by the power of human action as I am by the power of God, maybe more so; that power can be destructive, even self-destructive, as well as creative. I offer these questions in the memory of the times throughout history it’s been the former, and in the hope that in our time it will be the latter. Like this entire series, this thinking comes from an essentially conservative principle: those who seek change should first know what they wish to keep.