Judge Gordon Sullivan mistook this for an H. Rider Haggard adaptation.
Homeland or death!
Successful revolutions are created by the synergy of ideas and individuals. Without charismatic individuals to advocate for them even the best ideas aren't adopted by the masses (which might be why democracy basically disappeared after the decline of Greece). Without solid ideas, even the most charismatic individuals has trouble sustaining a revolution, especially after their death. Perhaps the most significant ideology of the twentieth century was communism—it was rarely successful, but it took a hold of the hearts and minds of many people all over the world, and its most charismatic proponent was undoubtedly Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Between the magnetism of Che and Fidel and the strength of communism's promises to the average worker and farmer, there seemed to be no way that Cuba wouldn't fall to them. However, Che's life also shows that beyond leadership and ideology, the successful revolutionary needs luck, something Che didn't have in his final Bolivian campaign (and something he arguably didn't really ever have after Cuba). These two sides of Che, the successful "liberator" of Cuba and the defeated Bolivian revolutionary, are the subject of Stephen Soderbergh's two-part biopic Che (Blu-ray), which finds the director in his more experimental mode as he dissects the life of a revolutionary.
Facts of the Case
Che was split—Che: Part One and Che: Part Two—for theatrical distribution. The first part, The Argentine, follows Che (Benicio Del Toro, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) from the boat to Cuba all the way to the successful revolution. These scenes are intercut with recreated moments of Che's famous appearance in front of the United Nations almost a decade later in New York City. The second part, Guerilla, follows Che through his less successful Bolivian campaign, which ultimately leads to his demise.
It's very, very easy to talk about what Che is not. It's not a typical biopic that follows its subject from birth to death. In fact, Che plays around so much with chronology within its two parts that it can be very difficult to follow at times. It's neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the man himself. Although it avoids what many consider his worst atrocities (the executions—or murders depending on whom you ask—after the Cuban revolution), it also doesn't linger on his greatest triumph, the taking of Cuba from Batista. It's also not a typical Soderbergh experimental film. His less mainstream works has tended towards smaller, more insular narratives like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. With Che however, he keeps the narrative difficulty of his earlier works but spreads it across an almost-insane canvass. We're talking a four-and-a-half-hour movie with dozens of speaking parts, action galore, and a complex historical context.
While it's easy to talk about what Che isn't, the more elusive question is what Che is. Although it appears to be a bit experimental in its structure, Che is really a portrait of a revolutionary as Greek tragedy. The first half is a giddy, triumphant catalogue of the rise of a tremendous revolutionary. As much as anyone can hate Che, they have to admit that he was a brilliant mind and his contributions to the success of the Cuban revolution are tremendous. His contributions, including his medical knowledge, commitment to the workers and farmers, and his revolutionary zeal, are all shown in the various pieces that combine into The Argentine. If The Argentine is the giddy, triumphant party, then Guerilla is the hangover, or in tragic terms, the fall. Here we watch the formerly successful revolutionary slowly defeated by indifferent or hostile peasants, a more responsive military, and ideological differences with possible allies. All of these contribute to the downfall of Che at the age of 39, and Soderbergh gives the film a claustrophobic sense of the tragic as each moment moves inexorably towards Che's death at the hands of the Bolivian military.
Che is also a vehicle for the tremendous acting talents of Benicio Del Toro. He inhabits the character of Che like he has few others, and his depth and passion are a perfect fit with the revolutionary zeal of the historical Che. The rest of the cast are equally adept at portraying their characters, from Julia Ormond as the interviewer Lisa Howard to Matt Damon in a small role. The film is also a technical marvel. Completed with a prototype hi-def RED camera, which allowed a four-and-a-half-hour movie with huge action set pieces and numerous characters to be shot on location in less than eighty days.
Few directors have their films go straight into the Criterion Collection, but Stephen Soderbergh is one of them. Unsurprisingly, Criterion has worked its usual magic with the little-seen Che by giving it a high-definition release as epic as the film's runtime. The RED camera is known for its hi-def video, and the transfer was supervised and approved by Soderbergh himself. It shows. Detail is crisp, colors are lush, and blacks are deep and dark. The film is split across two discs to ensure the maximum bit rate with the extras, and that shows, too. The audio is a fantastic DTS-HD track. I can't recall the last time gunfire sounded so realistic, and dialogue is clean and clear.
The extras provide much of the historical context that the film only hints at. For both films there's a commentary by the writer of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson. He's obviously passionate about his subject as he discusses the life and times of Che throughout the film, commenting and providing context for what's on the screen. Both discs also offer deleted scenes that flesh out the characters and the historical events. The first disc includes a long documentary on the making of the film with its star, director, producer, and writers. This is where the genesis of the project with Del Toro. They mention the possibility of Terrence Malick directing Che, and it's one of the more beautiful cinematic might-have-beens. The disc ends with the film's trailer. The second disc focuses more on Che as a man, with a featurette dedicated to interviews with historians as well as some of the participants in the revolutions with Che. There's also documentary from 1967 about the Bolivian revolution Che attempted. The second disc also houses a featurette on the RED camera which discusses some of the making of the film from a technical standpoint, as well as the camera's effect on modern filmmaking. There's also the usual booklet, and this one features a thoughtful review by critic Amy Taubin.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Che is a long, long movie, and not immune to charges of boredom and pretense. It demands a lot of the viewer, and it will be up to the individual to decide if it's ultimately worth the effort. Those looking for a film that either exonerates or vilifies Che will have to look elsewhere. I wouldn't call Che either balanced or neutral, but it somehow manages to sidestep the rightness or wrongness of Che's actions to capture instead his commitment to revolution in all its psychological excess.
As a film, I generally enjoyed the experience of Che but I can't help but feel that the second half was about 30 minutes too long. I think Che's capture and execution are important, but it was the only part in the four-plus hours that really seemed to drag for me.
Che threatens to become one of those cinematic monstrosities that critics laud but the average filmgoer never sits through. I'm not sure that Che is a great movie, but I can say that after four-and-a-half hours, I found myself affected greatly by the film, often recalling it in the days following my viewing. In a world filled with cookie-cutter sequels and franchise giants that's a small triumph in itself. Che also seems like a film with a built-in audience: if a four-plus hour biopic of Che Guevara by sometimes-experimental filmmaker Steven Soderbergh sounds like your kind of thing, then Che won't disappoint. For everyone else, I recommend a rental and a clear weekend to soak up Soderbergh's remarkable cultural and technical achievement with this Criterion Blu-ray release.
I don't know about Ernesto "Che" Guevara, but Che is not guilty.
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