Che Guevara, the iconic revolutionary, is a figure that films have dealt with both well (“The Motorcycle Diaries,” in which the young Guevara is played by Gael Garcia Bernal) and appallingly (the 1969 “Che!” with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance, a picture so awful it really deserves cult status). In Steven Soderbergh’s four-hour-plus, two-part, exclamation-point-free take, he’s treated with respect, even hero-worship, but without any exceptional insight or dramatic finesse. Simply put, “Che” has good things in it, especially the performance of Benicio Del Toro. But it’s misshapen and often turgid, simply laying out selected facts of Guevera’s life in a spare, repetitive style without providing a enlightening arc for its subject’s development.
“Che” is really two films, each of which runs a bit over two hours and can stand pretty much on its own; the first might be called “Che: Cuba” and the second “Che: Bolivia” (or, if you take them together, “Che: Rise and Fall”). As constructed by Peter Buchman, working from Guevara’s “The Cuban Revolutionary War” and “The Bolivian Diary” respectively, each portrays the man as he did himself in those writings—as a person utterly committed to the goals of liberty and equality, fighting against the repression of the common folk by tyrants bankrolled by an economically and militarily imperialist USA.
In the first installment, we meet Guevara as a fully formed activist (no personal backstory or viewpoint-changing motorcycle trips here) signing up with Fidel Castro’s little group over dinner and drinks. The picture then follows the course of the struggle against the government of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, always from Guevara’s perspective, through early 1959. That means that the treatment is at once epic, in the sense of following in fairly full detail campaigns in both rural areas and urban centers (particularly the key battle of Santa Clara) in which Che directly participated (and showing his incorruptibility in dealing with comrades, locals and foes equally), and confined, in that the larger strategy of the two-year operation, which consumed all of 1957 and 1958, isn’t made especially clear. Intercut with this footage are faux-grainy black-and-white inserts showing Che’s 1964 visit to New York to deliver an incendiary attack on the United States before the United Nations General Assembly, at a time when—as the reaction to his address and the scenes of him socializing with important folk (including Senator Eugene McCarthy) show—he was already a celebrity on the international scene, though (the script suggests) a reluctant one.
In the second film, Buchman and Soderbergh simply skip to 1966, when Guevara resigns from his official capacities in Cuba to enter Bolivia incognito and insert a Cuban presence into a ragtag local uprising against the US-backed dictator General Barrientos. The film details the failure of the operation over the course of more than a year in what some will find excruciating and repetitive detail, blaming its unraveling—as far as a coherent explanation is offered—not just on US intervention but on the Bolivian peasantry’s reluctance to join forces with foreign-led rebels. The denouement, in which Che is captured and summarily executed, generates dramatic power of a kind that’s been sadly lacking up to that point, but it doesn’t really make up for what until the last reel has seemed a rather desultory slog through the forest.
Throughout both parts Del Toro is at center stage, and he proves a charismatic figure who holds the position effortlessly. Of course, he doesn’t have a great deal of competition. Even Demian Bichir, who plays Castro, is reduced to the occasional appearance (though he makes the most of them), and the other revolutionaries are distinguishable mostly, if at all, by their distinctive hats or facial hair. One never develops a real emotional connection with any of them: when one called Little Cowboy (Unax Ugalde) is killed at Santa Clara, for example, Che reacts with anger, but we can’t feel his pain because we barely knew the fellow. (Compare the impact when Lawrence had to execute one of the young Arab boys who’d become his closest followers in David Lean’s classic.)
And even Del Toro’s technically exceptional performance is deficient in important respects, simply because the extremely limited focus of the script leaves its portrait of Guevara incomplete. The decision to omit virtually everything having to do with his intellectual formation, his family history, or his role in the Cuban government through 1965 (which involved a great many brutal actions) and the failed mission to export the Cuban revolution to Africa may make sense from a purely practical standpoint, but what it does is to elevate (or actually, reduce) him to the saintly—and ultimately martyred—revolutionary familiar from posters and T-shirts. The picture becomes more hagiography than serious biography, and a flaccid one at that.
Technically there are some items of interest, though. Both parts were shot by Soderbergh himself using his usual nom de camera Peter Andrews and state-of-the-art equipment, but in distinctly different styles. The first half is done in widescreen, while the second slims down to ordinary aspect ratio; perhaps there’s an artistic rationale behind this (to suggest the increasingly limited circumstances in which Che finds himself?), but it comes across as arbitrary. Apart from the unobtrusively solid period work of the behind-the-scenes crew, the only contribution of note is Pablo Zumarraga’s editing, which has different problems in the two halves, stumbling in the more complex intercutting of the first while dragging in the straight-line chronology of the second, at least until the final post-capture sequence. Alberto Iglesias’ score doesn’t always sound a comfortable fit, either.
One can appreciate Soderbergh’s attempt to craft a portrait of Guevara that doesn’t follow biopic convention, and his audacity in making that portrait a highly laudatory one. Unfortunately, its piecemeal character, lack of shading and lugubrious pace leave it not just incomplete but, despite the length, surprisingly shallow.