CHE: PARTS 1 & 2 (2008, directed by Steven Soderbergh, 157 minutes, U.S./France/Spain)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Scattered amidst the filmography of director Steven Soderbergh are a handful of films that announce themselves as impossibly ambitious and intellectual. You can imagine the director bragging to his peers in the industry, “Oh yeah, my next film is a fictionalized take on the life of Franz Kafka” or “I’m remaking Tarkovsky’s Solaris and I’m getting it right this time!” Che, Soderbergh’s four-hour biopic on the life of Marxist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevera is the latest of these half-cooked dishes, delivering a film that is more of an elephantine curiosity than a vigorous examination of the slippery meaning of the counterculture’s most beloved and misunderstood guerrilla.
The possibilities of such a film set the imagination ablaze. Che’s journey from the comfortable life of an Argentinian doctor to his death while unsuccessfully mounting a Bolivian revolution present a number of angles in which to examine this complicated icon of the 20th Century. Unfortunately, Soderbergh has ditched most of these angles, settling on perhaps the most mathematical of approaches, Che as military strategist. Like those who re-fight the American civil war in their leisure, Che tells you everything you might want to know about troop numbers, company morale and the battlefield manners of Che during his campaign to overthrow Batista and establish Castro’s vision of a socialist workers paradise in Cuba. Visually Che is all stark and art house-beautiful but as storytelling it marches along like the most pedestrian of 1950s World War 2 epics.
I’m sure there is a segment of war buffs in the audience that are delighted at the prospect tracing the steps of the ground troops on their road to Havana, still I can’t help but feel that Che has split the largest part of the man away from the whole. What emerges is a picture of Che whose distance gives the sensation that he being observed by some inconspicuous foot soldier from the back line of the battalion. This weirdly objective view is so dispassionate that Soderbergh’s own feelings about this most passionate of radicals seem glaringly absent. It’s a particular phenomenon of American film, the sort of politically meek work whose apolitical quality gets applauded as “transcending politics” when actually the director just lacks the guts to wrestle with the issues.
The plot’s construction makes nice conceptual sense — on paper at least. By splitting history into two acts Soderbergh (working with a script from Jurassic Park II scribe Peter Buchman) tells the same story twice, showing first how Che’s strategy succeeds in Cuba then showing how the same strategy fails in Bolivia. Benicio Del Toro suffers beautifully in the lead, lending his movie star charisma to Che, suggesting a strength and intensity between the hacking fits into which the asthmatic leader is constantly breaking. Whatever watchability the film maintains rests mainly of Del Toro’s able shoulders. Photographed by the director in a shifting color scheme that turns from bucolic greens to icy overcast blues, we follow Che as he charms and doctors the locals, presents nuggets of revolutionary wisdom and shares the indignities of traveling on foot across the countryside. With his private life a near mystery, we mainly see Che teaching but never learning. We spend our energies studying a surprisingly static character, observing a man on a long physical expedition while his interior journey is hidden from our sight.
And there we are stuck as the tale stretches on, its roadshow length allowing the film to pile on quiet incident after incident, oddly devoid of supporting characters and only occasionally rising to draw a map or to stage a battle. Still, by the time our comrade met his Waterloo in a stone cell in Bolivia there wasn’t a wet eye in the house, alienated from Che one last time, so relieved we were that the revolution was finally over.
THE BEATLES: Revolution One