Written, directed, and produced by Maria Berry, The True Story of Che Guevara is a by-the-numbers History Channel biography about the famed revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967) that blends talking head interviews, archival photographs and footage, poor dramatic reenactments, overly-urgent music, and insistent narration to poor effect.
The best thing that can be said about The True Story of Che Guevara is that it gets the highlights of Che's well-worn story essentially correct. Born to an upper-middle-class family in Argentina and trained as a physician, Che became radicalized by his travels throughout South America where he witnessed the exploitation of the working class and the toppling of a democratically-elected socialist government in Guatemala by an American-backed coup. He joined Fidel Castro's guerrillas and participated in the overthrow of the American-backed regime in Cuba. After the revolution, Che oversaw the execution of hundreds or possibly thousands of dissidents, and served as a government minister and diplomat. Che had a falling out with Castro and left Cuba. He turned up next in the Congo, but was disappointed in the quality of socialist revolutionaries there. Showing up next in Bolivia, he tried to foment revolution, but was dealt a string of defeats resulting in his capture and summary execution.
Berry assembles a number of interviewees, most notably John Lee Anderson, author of the thoughtful and thorough Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. Unfortunately, most of their comments are kept to cursory soundbites. Typical of American television documentaries, non-English speaking interviewees are overdubbed with English-speaking voice actors.
Though many other filmmakers have found the archival records sufficient to construct Che documentaries using nothing but authentic footage and photographs, Berry liberally uses dramatic reenactments. A few of these reenactments are inoffensive enough, but most are distractingly inept.
Many of the reenactments display a curious lack of attention to shot continuity and historical detail. While personally carrying out the summary execution of a traitor, Che (uncredited) is bareheaded and wearing a pistol-belt just before he shoots, but is wearing a beret with no belt just after.
Other reenactments evidence a threadbare budget. For example, a scene with Che unloading weapons, supposedly in 1956 Mexico, is shot in a modern suburban two-car garage, complete with late-model vehicles in the driveway. But by far the most egregious problems of budget and imagination are found in the absurdly-staged firefights: exaggerated muzzle flashes, fuzzy camerawork, overexposed frames, slow-motion editing, and blaring music fail to make the sight of a half-dozen actors running in circles in front of the camera interesting, much less believable.
The problem of commercial breaks is handled better in this documentary than in many other History Channel one-offs. Although there is the routine build to a big moment, cut to black, followed by a summation of what happened before the break, at least there's no on-screen graphics to remind viewers of what program they're watching.
Presented in a non-anamorphic letterbox, the 1.78:1 image looks pretty bad though it's often difficult to tell which problems are attributable to the transfer and which are attributable to Berry and Director of Photography Jacob Pinger. Since the interviews typically only suffer from the aliasing that plagues the whole feature, presumably all the visual problems with the reenactments were purposeful. Thus, for example, the shot of a modern marketplace looks blurry not because Pinger had too much coffee that morning but because Berry wanted a shot of a 1950's marketplace but couldn't afford to stage it and--for some unfathomable reason--didn't want to use archival footage.
The 2.0 audio sounds fine. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand, and the score is cleanly recorded in stereo.
The lack of subtitle options on this release is telling. If New Video thought this DVD was bankable, it would have at least spent the money to add optional Spanish subtitles.
The only extras on this release are a timeline of Che Guevara's life and a bibliography of Che's works published in English.
While Maria Berry's The True Story of Che Guevara might make fodder for a spot-the-problem-in-this-reenactment drinking game, it doesn't make for good sober viewing.