Hopes were perhaps impossibly high when director Steven Soderbergh and star Benicio Del Toro announced, following the Oscar-winning triumph of Traffic, that they would re-team for a biographical portrait of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Based on their previous collaboration, it seemed like a perfect marriage of material, filmmaker, and star; by the time the project finally arrived, nearly a decade later (a decade in which Soderbergh had continued his exciting experimentation into the very form of cinema), many of his admirers (myself included) were anticipating Soderbergh's masterpiece.
It is not that. Perhaps the dashing of those expectations was what led to its generally lukewarm reception by critics (again, myself included), but even taking its considerable flaws into account, there is still much in it to admire. The sheer ambition of the project, and the skill with which it is navigated by Soderbergh and Del Toro, is astonishing--here we have a film in two parts, each running 2 and a quarter hours, originally shown back-to-back as a "road show" for Oscar consideration in December 2008 before a release (split into its two parts) in January of the following year.
Most biographical films (even one as long as this one) have to heavily condense events in order to smash everything in. Soderbergh instead chooses to tell Che's story unconventionally, by taking three key events in his life (the Cuban revolution, his 1964 address to the United Nations, and the failed Bolivian revolution that led to his death at 39) and blow them up, in an attempt to make us understand him purely through those particular moments. It is a unique way to make a film about the man, instead of the things that happen to him.
Intellectually, this is an interesting proposition, and I see the value of this very experimental approach, even while noting that it doesn't quite land--at least not for the entirety of both films. Taken on its own, Che Part One (also known as The Argentine) is actually very strong; a difficult film, no doubt, and an easy one to get lost in, but absolutely compelling all the same. Soderbergh intercuts Guevara's trip to the New York (shot in high-contrast black-and-white) with the beginning of his life as a revolutionary, making the marvelous choice to jump off the movie with the initial meeting of Che and Fidel Castro (a quiet scene at a small dinner party). We then follow the men into the jungle, through the extended, bloody fight of the Cuban Revolution.
Soderbergh is clearly fascinated by the intricacies of guerilla warfare (as detailed in Guevara's writings), as well as in turning the expected "war movie" clichés on their head; the battles here are sudden, brutal, and immediate, but also not immune from the director's experimentation (in one memorable, early firefight, he removes all of the sound effects and has the battle play out under an interview from the New York trip). The film culminates with the taking of Santa Clara, an extended, remarkable sequence that is thrilling and somewhat moving (and is followed by a strange and unexpected coda).
The second film begins six years later, telling us precious little of what happened in between. Che Part Two (aka Guerrilla) deals, almost exclusively, with Guevara's attempt to lead the ultimately doomed Bolivian revolution; the storytelling here is much more linear, with no artsy New York stuff to cut away to. The problem is that, as viewers, we might have welcomed the escape. We spend about two-thirds of the first film in the jungle and even more of the second, and by the middle of that second film, the viewer is, well, rather tired of being there. I see what Soderbergh was going for here--first we see a successful revolution, and why it was successful, and then we're shown the later, unsuccessful one as a counter-point. I get that. I'm just not sure that he realizes that we get it, and he keeps us there too long. If I may mangle an aphorism, he doesn't see the jungle for the trees.
Soderbergh has always been a filmmaker fascinated by process (one of the pleasures of his infinitely pleasurable Ocean's films is that they let us peek in on the process of assembling the heist), but in Che, his fascination with the sheer process of guerilla warfare somewhat undermines the momentum of the picture. There are amazing moments in the second half (particularly in Del Toro's masterful portrayal of Guevara's weakening health), but they are surrounded by long stretches in which not much happens. But much of that can be forgiven in light of the richly rewarding closing passages; the last twenty or so minutes of the story are just plain flawless, a beautifully crafted and exquisitely acted portrait of the end of a journey. Del Toro shines here, as does Soderbergh's great-looking digital videography (under his pseudonym Peter Andrews). To some degree, that terrific payoff eases the labored build-up.
Soderbergh's motives are honorable; each film, for example, begins with an "overture" in the style of the old sweeping epics, which immediately reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia, a film not dissimilar (in theory) to this one. His aim, it would seem, is to make an epic biography like that film, but to do it on more personal terms and in a more intimate way, and he almost pulls it off. But in its second half, Che occasionally pushes too far in the other direction, becoming so unconventional that it borders on alienation.
This is not to negate the experimental tendencies of the film, or to suggest that a more conventional approach would have been more successful. It does no good to bemoan the film that wasn't made; let us, instead, examine the one that was. Che is intimate, personal, moving, and occasionally thrilling. It is also long, dry, bewildering, and periodically inaccessible. It makes you do some of the work--more, surely, than most viewers are willing to do. But what it does, it does very, very well.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The two parts of Che are each contained on their own 50GB Blu-ray disc and packaged in Criterion's standard plastic case. The two cases are housed in a simple cardboard slipcase. Inside the case for Che Part One is a 20-page booklet with credits, photos, and an excellent essay by the great Amy Taubin.
The films were shot primarily using the RED One camera and lenses, and the clarity and detail of the 1080p, MPEG-4 AVC transfers is stunning. In Part One, the lush greens of the jungle are exquisitely rendered; indeed, colors pop throughout, most noticeably in a montage in of the guerillas traveling with wounded troops (it cuts from the warm daylight to the cool night, and both shots are rich and luminous). Black levels are full and deep, most noticeably in scenes played in shadow (like the scene where Fidel demotes Che, who sits in shadow with only his face emerging). The 1964 scenes, shot on high-contrast black-and-white 16mm film, have a dense, thick quality to the image; there, and in the flashback to Che and Fidel's first meeting, grain is noticeable and heavy. But that's clearly an aesthetic choice (in contrast to the sharpness of the rest of the film), and it's an effective one.
The epic scale often implied by the 2.39:1 aspect ratio of Part One stands in contrast to the smaller, more personal journey of Part Two, which is accordingly shot handheld and in the tighter 1.78:1 aspect ratio. That's not all that's different; Soderbergh is working with a colder, harsher color palate, draining those saturated greens for either a cool blue dread or a hotter sun that renders daylight scenes bleaker, whiter, more blown-out and arid. There's touch of grain here and there (in the lyrical montage of Che at home before the trip to Bolivia, or in a couple of isolated shots in the dark scene before his capture), but it never distracts; overall, this is a top-notch transfer.
The primary audio option is Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio (with English subtitles), and it's an outstanding track. The numerous jungle scenes are given considerable depth and atmosphere by the vibrant mix, which spreads those effects throughout the soundstage wonderfully. The first firefight is startling, with gunshots popping like firecrackers, and the numerous gun battles make stunning use of the surround possibilities (and of the LFE channel, thanks to several subwoofer-rattling explosions). Cracks of thunder and dumping of rain in Part Two are just as immersive, as are the occasional crowd scenes at state dinners. In short, it's a marvelous lossless track.
There's only one disappointment to be found in Criterion's sterling array of bonus features: no Steven Soderbergh commentary. He's one of the best in the business (self-deprecating and funny while insightful and detailed), and it would have been nice to get his thoughts on the difficult production (though he's heavily participatory elsewhere in the bonus features). Instead, we get jam-packed Audio Commentaries for both films by Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (the Che biography of choice for college kids who fancy themselves anarchists). His informative tracks, while not exactly scene-specific, are full of detailed background (and some criticism of the exclusions of the film); both are worth a listen.
The Part One disc also includes "Making Che" (49:51), an outstanding making-of documentary, centered mainly on interviews with Soderbergh, Del Toro, producer Laura Bickford, and screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin van der Veen (with a smattering of behind-the-scenes footage and photos). They give a point-by-point account of the long and storied preparation, including the involvement of Terrence Malick, the decision to split the story into two films, the early shooting of the New York scenes, and the fight to shoot in Spanish ("Authenticity trumps everything," Soderbergh explains). They also discuss the films' many exclusions, and some of the criticisms they faced over them, as well as the stress of the extended, exhausting shoot. Soderbergh dominates the last twenty or so minutes with extended explanations of his visual and structural choices; these are the kind of things he'd have probably expounded on in a commentary track, so this is perhaps an adequate substitute. Most notably, it ends with some trenchant (and spot-on) thoughts from Soderbergh on the current state of American cinema. It's a candid, detailed mini-doc, and up to Criterion's usual high standards.
Next up on the Part One disc is an assortment of Deleted Scenes (15:31), with optional audio commentary by Soderbergh. They're mostly throwaways and redundancies, save for a military tribunal sequence with some intriguing photography. But, as was the case on the Erin Brockovich DVD, Soderbergh's limited yet interesting commentary here is better than nothing (though he goes quiet for a good couple of minutes towards the end). The well-crafted Theatrical Trailer (2:32)for the full film closes out disc one.
More Deleted Scenes (5:26) open up the supplementary section for Part Two; this bunch is even briefer and, again, best seen with the option of Soderbergh's commentary. Next is the short 1968 television documentary "End of a Revolution" (25:52), shot immediately after Guevara's death, by filmmaker Brian Moser. It is fascinating (and shocking--it begins with horrifying photos and coverage of Bolivian officials showing off Che's dead body), full of remarkable footage and enlightening interviews.
"Interviews from Cuba" features new interviews, conducted by producer Bickford and star Del Toro for Criterion, with participants (23:08) and historians (11:53) of the Cuban Revolution. As with the Moser film, this rather dry section is more for students of the story than fans of the film. Finally, "Che and the Digital Cinema Revolution" (33:21) focuses on Soderbergh's use of the RED camera; Soderbergh, his crew, and the makers of the high-def camera recall their hopes and their concerns in the run-up to production (they got the finished camera literally days before shooting began in Spain, and the final software the very morning of the first day) and during the shoot. The director is clearly a bit of a techno-geek, and the featurette gleefully delves into the specifics and jargon with him; this viewer rather enjoyed the journey.
My first viewing of Che, over a year ago, left me feeling disappointed and somewhat bewildered (reflected in my harsher original review). It worked better for me on this second viewing, and I'm not sure why; either my expectations had been recalibrated, or the film is so specific and detailed that it takes additional viewings to take it all in. (Another factor: I originally watched both parts back-to-back, as Soderbergh said was his preference, whereas this viewing separated the two parts by a full day--in my opinion, a much smarter way to take in the potentially repetitive material.) Whatever the reason, while I'm still not sure I can explain or justify all of Soderbergh's choices, I can say that Che is a fascinating, intelligent picture--and, like many of our finest (and most challenging) films, it is admirable for both its strengths and its flaws.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.