By Kevin Cook
Telecinco Cinema’s 2008 two-part cinéma vérité biopic “Che” may be as polarizing a film as the revolutionary Guevara was a man.
The product of a deep and profound investment by the filmmakers, the movie spent eight years in development and requires almost as much investment from audiences, clocking in at an immodest 268 minutes. While cinematographically superb, with a strong, but puzzlingly lacking, performance from Benicio del Toro, Che is still a frustratingly incoherent and perplexing film best characterized as a flawed masterpiece.
The movie, which covers both Guevara’s successful revolution in Cuba and his failed effort in Bolivia, is divided into two parts, “The Argentine” and “Guerrilla.” According to director Steven Soderbergh, the deliberate partition reflects the idea of dialectics — a method of discourse espoused by Plato and eventually co-opted by Marxist theorists — but while the juxtaposition of the two campaigns, with very similar narratives but drastically different outcomes, is interesting in theory, it fails in practice.
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote, “’Che’ is twice as long as it needs to be, but it is also only half the movie it should have been.” He couldn’t be more right.
Soderbergh’s career is perhaps best described as bipolar. He alternates crowd-pleasing, popcorn affairs like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Erin Brockovich” with niche labor-of-love efforts like “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” and “Che.” Sadly, Soderbergh’s prodigious talent lies in giving the people what they want. “Ocean’s Eleven” is as good and pleasurable a heist romp as there is in cinema. His obsessively researched pet projects, though, tend to miss the mark, and “Che” certainly does.
The length is positively absurd. The two parts basically present identical stories, differing only in geographic location and end result. Though the second part’s depiction of guerrilla warfare is visually superb, a clinic in the use of handicam, it all amounts to a frustrating, boring anticlimax. The Christ imagery Soderbergh employs in the *spoiler alert* scene depicting Guevara’s execution by the CIA, after which his corpse is strapped to the landing gear of a helicopter, is troubling.
Add Soderbergh consciously omitting the morally reprehensible, horrifically brutal actions of Guevara, who often enthusiastically carried out summary executions with his own hand, in the months following the Cuban revolution, and the movie’s depiction of the doctor-turned-revolutionary becomes even more troubling.
Another provocative stylistic choice that is theoretically intriguing, but practically frustrating, is the wholesale elimination of the close-up shot, a staple of film. Soderbergh has stated that his choice reflects his acknowledgement of Guevara’s dedication to collectivism.
It would be disrespectful to portray Che, a staunch devotee of egalitarian socialism, using shots that isolate and elevate him. Thus, del Toro is seen almost exclusively at a distance. It seems as though the audience is watching him through the wrong end of a telescope.
Del Toro is the real driving force behind this film. He optioned the film rights to Jon Lee Anderson’s 1997 biography “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” the book on which the movie is loosely based.
He spent the eight years of purgatorial development and pre-production — during which time two screenwriters were hired and fired, poor funding constantly threatened to derail the project and filming locations fell through on multiple occasions — reading every extant piece of published material on Guevara and speaking with dozens of those who knew him personally. His portrayal is ultimately disjointed and perplexing, though more because of the inherent contradictions of Guevara’s own character than because of any lack of talent or effort on del Toro’s part. His performance is a frustrating combination of virtuosity and futility.
Ultimately, that same duality applies macrocosmically to the movie as a whole. The individual parts, like stunningly beautiful cinematography and vibrant performances by the cast, somehow add up to much less than their sum.
In a way, this is appropriate. Today, Guevara is little more to the average person than the iconic Alberto Korda photo “Guerilla Heroica” — which the Maryland Institute College of Art called, “the most famous photograph in the world” — the star of the hip, leftist screen-printed T-shirts worn by Hollywood politicos desperately trying to broadcast their progressive radicalism. Too often, they are unaware of the frustrating contradictions that Guevara embodied as a brilliant tactician, selfless humanitarian, gleeful murderer and atomic-war enthusiast. In their treatment, del Toro and Soderbergh fell short of demystifying the man and, in doing so, failed as filmmakers and succeeded only in contributing to the perplexing myth of Che.