There is so much to admire in Steven Soderbergh's Che, and so much that it does right, that it is tempting to ignore what does not work and heap praise upon the entire package. The sheer ambition of the project, and the skill with which it is navigated by director/cinematographer Soderbergh and star Benicio Del Toro, is astonishing--here we have is a film in two parts, each running 2 and a quarter hours, running back-to-back as a "road show" for Oscar consideration in December before a release (split into its two parts) in January.
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 the story of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara 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 1: 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 his trip to the U.N. (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 Guevera'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 2: 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'd welcome the escape.
At risk of putting too fine a point on it, we spend about two-thirds of the first film in the jungle. We spend even more of the second film there, and by the middle of that second film, the viewer is just plain tired of being in the jungle. 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, so we stay in the jungle, longer and longer, and the film becomes repetitious to the degree that it becomes something of a slog. 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 entertaining Ocean's films is that they let us peek in on the process of assembling the heist), but in Che, his fascination with the process of guerilla warfare ultimately 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.
All of which could be easily forgotten 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). But even a terrific payoff like this doesn't erase 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 pushes too far in the other direction, becoming so unconventional that it borders on alienating. It might, in fact, be better that so much of the country will see the film in its split form--the first part is so much stronger than the second, some viewers might be wise to stop there.
This is not to negate the experimental tendencies of the film, or to suggest that a more conventional approach would have been more successful. The question is, does the experiment, this particular experiment, really work? Che is intimate, personal, moving, and occasionally thrilling. It is also long, dry, bewildering, and periodically inaccessible. There is a really great movie buried within these 270 minutes; it's a shame the filmmakers couldn't figure out a way to dig it out. But what it does, it does very well; for that, in spite its flaws, Che is recommended.