Few twentieth century figures
have been so strangely abstracted from the reality of their times as
Ernesto "Che" Guevara. From a young age (I was born 9 years
after his execution), I have only known his name and image. The
use of Che's visage on posters and t-shirts, and the sloganification
of his nickname, say much about the ability of capitalism to use even
its supposed enemies for profit - while saying nothing at all about
the man. Attempts at film biographies have mostly failed, not
counting the recent and much-lauded The Motorcycle Diaries, directed
by Walter Salles. Steven Soderbergh's four-and-a-half-hour two-part
Spanish-language epic Che is a patient, detailed treatment of
two key segments of Che's life, and while it doesn't fully succeed
as a revelation of his character, the film does reveal and enliven history
with an expert's storytelling technique.
Che: Part 1 tracks Che's
involvement in the Cuban Revolution, from his first meeting with Fidel
Castro in Mexico City, to the key battle at Santa Clara, which immediately
resulted in Batista's fall from power. We see Che as Castro's
right hand, the philosophical heart of the Revolution, and a principled
and relatively egoless military leader who insists that new recruits
learn to read. Che regularly emphasizes the importance of morally
sound behavior among both his peers and subordinates. All of this
is interspersed with black-and-white flash-forwards to Che's 1964
New York visit and speech to the United Nations.
Che: Part 2 skips forward
about six years after the Cuban Revolution to Che's time leading an
ill-organized and ill-equipped group of would-be revolutionaries through
the jungles of Bolivia for one year. It culminates in the guerrillas
being stopped by the Bolivian army, with help from American "advisors."
Che is summarily executed the following day.
Soderbergh is an eclectic,
enthusiastic filmmaker whose love of his craft is always evident.
He is a director comfortable and fluent working in a number of different
modes and tones, whether it's the Hollywood polish of Ocean's
Eleven and Solaris, or the do-it-yourself indie scruffiness
of Schizopolis and Bubble. Che lies somewhere
in between. It's a labor of love and determination that finds
the director utilizing something close to the journalistic approach
of his Oscar-winning Traffic. The film proudly bears the
influences of Francesco Rosi, Gillo Pontecorvo, and Costa-Gavras.
The tone is always realistic and character-oriented. You won't
find narrative or stylistic flourishes here. We are down in the
grit with these people. We feel the pressure of encroaching soldiers,
the desperation of near-starved guerrillas, and the calm still soul
of Che guiding his men and their actions by example.
These directorial choices reveal
that Soderbergh's film looks upon Che Guevara with empathy, as a man
who was driven by certain unwavering ideals. This will rile those
who knew the real Che as less than saintly. Soderbergh has chosen
his approach for a reason, however, and the film doesn't intend to
fool us into icon-worship. In the film, Che is convincing as a
character of unique, morally uncompromising strengths; yet in the storytelling,
we see the weaknesses within and the ultimate failure of Guevara's
belief that he alone could instigate and guide effective revolutionary
The success of this portrayal
is assisted in no small way by Benicio del Toro's quiet, controlled,
inward performance. Del Toro submits himself to the character
as egolessly as the Che he portrays would have had it - there are
no great actorly "moments" in Che. There are three
or four scenes when Guevara exhibits naked emotion, and even those are
restrained. Del Toro never indulges in theatricality, keeping
his Che on an even keel; the character is guided only by an ideal -
perhaps idealized - vision of himself.
The structure of the film's
two parts suggests that Che's guiding principles were insufficient
on their own and required much more than just his own guidance for a
true revolution to be effected. Putting the darker aspects of
Che's biography aside, Soderbergh skips from the success of Cuba to
Guevara's demise in the haphazard Bolivian campaign. This choice
is instructive in and of itself, as it challenges us to ask questions
about Che and do our own research on the film's "lost years."
Where did he go? What did he do? What on earth happened
to him that transformed him from the silent master of the Cuban Revolution
to a ragged figure in Bolivia who at one point becomes so frustrated
with a stubborn horse that he stabs it in the neck?
Hannah Arendt's book On
Revolution (1963) posits that true revolutions are rare things.
She cites the American Revolution as one because it merely sloughed
off an unwanted regime (the British Empire) and replaced it with an
incipient one, built by the Founding Fathers before the first shots
at Lexington and Concord. The Cuban Revolution may have been a
successful revolution for similar reasons - popular support and low
resistance worked in Castro's favor. But in Bolivia, Guevara
was on his own, fomenting revolution for the sake of it, against forces
that were by then wise to his game. Arendt's formula aside,
the odds were against him.
In the end, Che provides
an empathetic, if not sympathetic, view of a man who was by no means
a simple do-gooder. He was principled, brave, and effective.
He was intelligent, driven, and seemingly large-hearted. Even
though the darker impulses and deeds that came to pass after the success
of Cuba are not in evidence, Soderbergh and company do have an engaging,
rigorous purpose: to explore the development and failure of political
and social principles within a single noteworthy human being.
This theme propels a technically proficient film that achieves rare
intellectual engagement with the force of history.
The third disc contains the
remaining extras, and they are top-notch:
Che (49:49) is an excellent, candid behind-the-scenes documentary
that reveals the production to have been extraordinarily trying.
Two groups of Deleted Scenes
(15:32 Part 1, 5:26 Part 2) contain several interesting
moments that, in my view, should have been included in the final cut.
In a four-and-a-half-hour film, what's another ten minutes?
They come with optional commentary by director Soderbergh.
End of a Revolution
(25:52) is an indispensable 1968 documentary by Brian Moser who went
looking for Guevara in Bolivia. Unfortunately, Che was killed
just before Moser's arrival, but Moser found the site of his execution
and the resulting film is stunning.
Interviews from Cuba
contains two segments, Participants (23:07) and Historians
(11:54) who offer their perspectives on Che himself and the Cuban Revolution.
These interviews were conducted by the film's producers, Laura Bickford
and Benicio del Toro, and provide some very interesting background and
Che and the Digital
Cinema Revolution! (33:19) focuses on the Red camera and the potential
for speed and reduction in costs allowed by the digital format.
In all, not counting the commentary,
these features comprise nearly three hours of grade-A material.
Che is not for everyone. It's very long. And for all the action that it does have, this is mostly a character-driven historical drama that is rather quiet and contemplative. I was invigorated by this thoughtful, serious look at a complex historical figure. The performances, particularly by del Toro, are remarkable. As a film, Che will very likely grow in stature in future years. Its deep engagement with the past represents an intellectual commitment filmmakers rarely make, and its seamless technique is nothing short of masterly. Taken together with the outstanding package of extras, Che merits a first from me: a place in the DVD Talk Collectors Series.