Che (Spain/France/United States, 2008)
What potentially could have been the greatest asset possessed by Che - its unapologetic length - turns into its greatest detriment. One frequent complaint about cinematic biopics is that too much condensation is required and, as a result, key aspects of an individual's life are elided. For Che, director Steven Soderbergh elected to let the story determine the length rather than the other way around. A good idea in theory, perhaps, but not in practice. Despite clocking in at over four hours, Che nevertheless provides us with little more than a frustratingly incomplete and inconsistent portrayal of its title character who often seems more like a supporting individual in his own story than the protagonist. Worse, the film's slow, unhurried pace leads to bouts of tedium. 4 1/4 hours can be a long time to sit in a theater, and it can seem longer when the director is drawn into extended periods of self-indulgence. For those with genuine interest in learning about the life and death of iconic guerilla leader Ernesto Guevara, I can recommend several excellent books. Soderbergh's bloated epic is a chore to sit through, and I left it with no new insights about the man or his myth.
In order to keep things manageable, Che has been split into two parts of roughly equal length, called (rather obviously) Che Part One and Che Part Two. For purposes of this review, however, the entire story will be treated as a single production, which is how it was initially envisioned. (It is not, by the way, unheard of to release a single film of roughly this length, but it happens infrequently, and mostly only in specialty theaters.) When Che transitions to DVD, which is the medium in which it will get the most attention, it will likely arrive as a single package.
Che Part One covers the "Cuba years." We are introduced to the group of young Marxist firebrands - Cubans Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) and his brother, Raul (Rodrigo Santoro), and Che (Benicio Del Toro), who is from Argentina. Beginning in 1956, these three wage war against the corrupt, American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che contains many scenes of the rebel leaders training and encouraging their troops, but battle scenes, when shown at all, are perfunctory. There are a large number of secondary characters, many of whom leave little or no impression. In an unsuccessful attempt to provide geographical grounding for the progression of the invasion, the movie opens with a color-coded map of Cuba. Anyone who can actually remember the map during the course of events should be commended. Perhaps it should be provided as a hand-out.
Che Part Two opens nearly a decade later in Bolivia, where Che has gone with the goal of fomenting revolution. He finds circumstances different in South America than in Cuba. The Bolivian Communist Party takes a non-violence stand and is unwilling to support him. The Americans offer more active support to the dictatorship. And Che does not have the strong backing network that he enjoyed in Cuba. Bolivia is a spectacular disaster and, as a chapter in Che's life, notable primarily for the way it ends.
The aspect of Che that disappointed me the most was its failure to provide a compelling portrait of the main character. Benicio Del Toro's acting is fine (although overpraised in some quarters) but he's working with an individual who has been sketched not drawn in detail. The film also tends toward a reverent approach, which necessitates that some of the less savory aspects of Che's life be relegated to the background. Despite more than four hours being devoted to some of his best-known exploits, Che never attains full humanity. There are occasional scenes, such as one in which he visits his home in Cuba in disguise and has a brief, tender moment with his wife, Aleida (Catalina Sandino Moreno), where Soderbergh provides glimpses of the man behind the rhetoric, but they are too few and far between. Without a strong Che to anchor the movie, it drifts aimlessly from camp to camp and conflict to conflict. Maybe the point of the movie is to show how dreary and dull war can be between battles, but I don't need to sacrifice four hours of my life to understand such an obvious point.
In its final 40 minutes, Che develops enough momentum to be worth viewing. The film's late sequences with the title character imprisoned are well acted and effectively presented. During that span, Soderbergh provides us with a reason to lament all the time he has wasted to this point. There's potent dramatic material to be mined and refined but, until the collapse of the Bolivian campaign, Che fails to extract it.
Che has an anti-American bias, but this is dramatically necessary when one considers the perspective from which the story is being told. The screenplay, by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen, draws heavily from Che's diaries. The most overtly anti-American moments occur during Che Part One, when (in flash-forward) Guevara addresses the United Nations. Che's passionate outrage against American Imperialism formed a cornerstone of his belief system, so it would be disingenuous for it to be underplayed in the movie. To be true to the nature of the character, the film must be true to his belief system.
To better illustrate where I believe Che fails, let me provide some comparisons to Patton, another bio-pic set against a greater conflict. Admittedly, the characters of Che and Patton are nothing alike. In fact, from an ideological standpoint, they are diametrically opposed. Yet the movie Patton takes an iconic individual and fleshes him out, showing the good, the bad, and the ugly, and transforming myth into man. In the process, we are also provided with a clear history lesson and the time line and geography are never muddled. (One of Patton's most memorable maps is drawn on the mirror in a men's room.) Che, despite lasting about 90 minutes longer than Patton, achieves few (if any) of these objectives.
For those looking for a more satisfying screen representation of Guevara, one needs look no further than Walter Salles' 2004 feature, The Motorcycle Diaries, which depicts events that led Che to become the man who would lead the Marxist revolution in Cuba. Although I admire Soderbergh's intentions with Che and the uncompromising way in which he made the film he wanted to make (rather than bowing to the demands of commercial cinema), the end results do not warrant praise. Che is muddled and poorly focused and its moments of strength and clarity are overshadowed by the mediocrity encroaching upon them from all sides. In life, it can be said that Che won battles but ultimately lost his war. A similar claim can be made about Soderbergh and this film.
Che (Spain/France/United States, 2008)
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Demian Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Franka Potente, Joaquim de Almeida
Screenplay: Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen
Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Music: Alberto Iglesias
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films