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Even revolutionaries pull stupid stunts and cruise for girls at some point in their lives. That’s the gist of Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, which focuses on Argentine rebel Che Guevara and the traveling he did in 1952 at the age of 23, when the possibility of scoring a pair of sisters with his buddy was more exciting to him than the emancipation of the proletariat.
Back then, Che was merely Ernesto—or “Fuser,” to his best friend, Alberto Granado. When the film begins, Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna) is a stocky, gregarious 29-year-old biochemist from Buenos Aires who wants to see the rest of Latin America before his 30th birthday. The quieter, asthmatic Ernesto (Gael García Bernal) is about to finish medical school and is just looking for a little adventure before settling into a career as a doctor. So they say goodbye to friends and family and take off for an 8,000-kilometer trek—four months long on paper, eight months in actuality—on a crappy old motorcycle they call “the Mighty One.”
The majority of The Motorcycle Diaries, which Salles shot on location in Argentina, Chile, and Peru, is pure feel-good road flick, fashioned from Guevara’s and Granado’s autobiographies by screenwriter Jose Rivera (whose most well-known previous credit is probably TV’s Family Matters). There isn’t a whisper of politics behind their trip, merely a desire to experience life before it’s sucked out of them. While they’re discussing their itinerary, as well as the fact that they’re essentially ditching responsibility, Alberto reassures Ernesto by pointing to an old man nodding off in a coffee shop and asking, “Do you want to end up like that?”
As the pair make their way across the continent, they seem more like goofy, foul-mouthed teenagers than men of science as they bicker, scam food and shelter, and are repeatedly thrown off the rickety, overloaded bike, which eventually breaks down for good. Rivera keeps the tone overwhelmingly humorous, with Bernal playing introspective straight man to de la Serna’s smooth-talking skirt-chaser, but, mercifully, he never lets the misadventures descend into Hollywood-style wackiness. The actors’ camaraderie is playful and convincing, and though de la Serna is charged mostly with clowning while Bernal relies on increasingly soulful stares, both believably portray that tricky 20-something stage when glimpses of maturity break through boyishness.
Even while Ernesto and Alberto crack jokes, however, cinematographer Eric Gautier renders the Latin American landscape as rather sobering. The guys may be all bravado and high spirits, but they’re no match for the elements they face, which include blinding snow in the Andes, tropical heat in the Amazon, and the arid nothingness of the Atacama Desert. One particularly solemn, gorgeous scene shows the travelers looking over the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu—an event that leads Ernesto to note in his diary, “How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?”
It’s during the travelers’ earlier journey through the desert, however, that Ernesto truly begins his subtle shift from fun-loving student to the leader of men he will soon become. As he and Alberto share a fire with a local couple on their way to find jobs at a nearby mine after losing their land, the wealthy Ernesto is startled and somewhat shamed when they ask, “Are you looking for work? No? Then why are you traveling?” From this point on, Ernesto is attuned to his homeland’s great divide between rich and poor, a reality that is handily schematized when he and Alberto volunteer at an Amazonian leper colony that keeps the patients and staff on opposite sides of the river.
Those lepers aren’t there by accident, of course. Salles treats his subject with palpable reverence, offering almost no hint of the violent nature Guevara would come to be known for. (At one point, Ernesto does comment that a true revolution would be impossible without guns.) Indeed, there are several moments that the man’s supposed saintliness is a little too literal, such as when he refuses to wear gloves at the leper colony, despite the rules of the nuns in charge, and when he “treats” a sick old woman by laying his hands on her head in exchange for shelter.
The film stops short of complete glorification, however, by checking each instance of Ernesto’s do-gooding with a bit of humor. (After his and Ernesto’s clash with the colony’s Mother Superior, for example, Alberto mutters, “I think she wants me.”) And while the hardscrabble concerns of Latin America’s poor are addressed, especially in the film’s last half, its overwhelming feel remains joie de vivre, with Ernesto and Alberto welcomed and cared for in even the most poverty-stricken villages. Near the journey’s end, Ernesto tells Alberto, “All this time we spent on the road, something happened,” and it’s true that when Guevara wrote his journal, he couldn’t have known exactly where that something would lead. But it doesn’t really matter: The foundation of friendship, adventure, and compassion on which The Motorcycle Diaries is built is solid enough that Ernesto’s final statement—“I am not myself anymore”—would sound convincing coming from just about anyone.
George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry is much bolder in its deification of a political figure, though Kerry’s transformation seems the opposite of Guevara’s. After watching footage of a young man speaking out with no hesitation against the unjust war killing off his peers, the question you’re left with is, Where is this unflinching leader now?
The 92-minute documentary opens with the statement “You can’t understand John Kerry unless you understand how he feels about Vietnam.” Then, over home videos that follow the candidate from childhood to Yale, Kerry’s family, friends, and fellow soldiers talk about his natural “derring-do” and love of his country. Attestations to the young Kerry’s unflagging patriotism are bolstered by video of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech; heartstrings are tugged with the inclusion of coverage of Kennedy’s assassination and Kerry’s reaction to it, as remembered by his college roommates.
Soon enough, however, Going Upriver—“loosely based” on Douglas Brinkley’s book Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War—gets back to the matter at hand, detailing Kerry’s service in Vietnam as well as his subsequent role as a spokesperson for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). And it’s here that Butler, who began photographing Kerry in 1969, begins piling on. A segment explaining the strategy of swift boats and the danger of serving on them brings commentary from skipper Wade Sanders, who says it was during this duty that he and the other soldiers “began to see the man [Kerry] was.” (Former Green Beret James Rassman appears, too, to repeat his well-publicized belief that if it weren’t for Kerry, he’d probably be dead.) After Kerry gets out of Vietnam, it’s his anti-war efforts that demand kudos: Several soldiers credit him with being central to the movement, and even the chair of the 1971 Senate hearing at which Kerry famously testified on behalf of VVAW sent him off by saying, “I can’t imagine them having elected a better representative.”
Naturally, the film is much more compelling when it widens its focus to include the war and the political climate in general—especially when it echoes our country’s present conflict, from Lyndon Johnson’s folksy defense of a U.S. presence in Vietnam to the rant of a former soldier over the “stupid waste of life for questionable objectives that look increasingly inaccurate.” And Butler has gathered a rather impressive range of supporting footage, a mix of his own photos and archival video that gives a comprehensive portrait of what Kerry was all about back then.
More important, though, is that despite the shrillness of Butler’s cheerleading, seeing Kerry as a mad-as-hell 27-year-old dynamo makes you believe that all the good words are justified. Poised and articulate, Kerry consistently meets his detractors with reason and conviction, allowing for differing viewpoints but never backing down from his own—he’s passion unscripted, and you can’t help compare the fiery youngster to the hypercareful moderate he appears to be today. Butler even includes a tape of Richard Nixon saying that his administration should “destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader”—which, at this point, is just about the saddest fate one can imagine for the ex–Lt. John Kerry. CP