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by Mark Jenkins,
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JANUARY 16, 2009

A Che Cut in Two

In the case of Che Guevara, Steven Soderbergh's biopic emphasizes action over thought.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: CHANDNI CHOWK TO CHINA. Clicking on that title will take you to

STEVEN SODERBERGH can make whatever movies he likes, and does — not just as a matter of moral right, but because he usually works cheap and turns out the occasional Ocean's Whatever flick to pay the bills. But when asked to sit through a four-and-a-half hour film about a 42-year-dead leftist icon, viewers might well ask what they're supposed to learn. About Che, that is, not about Soderbergh's restless cinematic experimentation.

The answer is, not much. For those who know Ernesto "Che" Guevara basically from the famous photograph of him as a revolutionary martyr, Che's two very different parts will merely befuddle. The second half culminates in Che's death: He was executed in 1967 by CIA-trained troops at the end of badly conceived and poorly implemented attempt to bring Cuba's already betrayed revolution to Bolivia. But there's little sense of Che's birth, either as a person or a radical. (Some of that is in Walter Salle's 2004 The Motorcycle Diaries.) Che even excludes large chunks of its subject's life in the period it does cover, from 1952 to 1967.

Showing initially as one film, but conceptually better understood as two, Che divides historically and stylistically between Cuba and Bolivia. The first half coils in time, flashing forward and back from the Argentine-born Che (co-producer Benicio Del Toro) at his first meeting with Castro (Demien Bichir) in Mexico City in 1955 to his rock-star visit to New York to address the United Nations in 1964.

Soderbergh, who served as his own cameraman under the alias "Peter Andrews," further confuses the tale by intercutting both real and fake newsreel footage, and adding voiceover in English and Spanish. Che 1, which ends just before Castro and his allies take Havana in 1959, plays as distant and impressionistic — a historical dream that doesn't pretend to be comprehensive. Indeed, the film's first part suggests that history is unknowable as anything more than a jumble of impressions.

The second half, however, is intensely specific. After taking leave of his young wife (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and their children, an incognito Che travels to Bolivia. Once in the parched mountains, the revolutionary lets his beard regrow and the movie becomes a dramatization of Richard Dindo's austere 1994 documentary, Che Guevera: The Bolivian Diary. Intimate and chronologically straightforward, the movie observes what is clearly its only essential character — even if Soderbergh does avoid closeups of his protagonist. Che trudges, shoots, suffers asthma attacks, and is captured. Although Soderbergh's approach is detached and unemotional — the first half's faux-12-tone score yields here to silence — Che 2 becomes heroic by default. The movie is not the story of The People, but of The Man. Che is the Bolivian uprising, and it dies with him.

That's a critique of what went wrong in Bolivia, but it's probably unintentional. If Soderbergh (and scripters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen) meant to reproach Che, the movie would have mentioned his failures as a Cuban government minister, his abortive foray to the Congo, and his brutality as Castro's enforcer. (The latter is covered briefly in Andy Garcia's counterrevolutionary 2006 melodrama, The Lost City.) Some critics have damned Che as leftist propaganda, but it's too chilly to qualify. In fact, the film functions as an analysis neither of the man nor his cult. It just observes, treating insurrection as something that happens, moment by moment — or shot by shot.

As Soderbergh has said, Che is a "procedural." Sometimes that's enough, as during the powerful sequence that depicts the last battle in part one. But in making a procedural about one of the most mythic characters in 20th-century history, the director is being — and not for the first time — perverse.

Perhaps Soderbergh hijacked the more ideological project initially conceived by del Toro and co-producer Laura Bickford, and once assigned to director Terence Malick. And maybe Che fans will find the film moving, especially when Mercedes Sosa's voice enters as the Argentine's corpse is being carried from the hut where he was killed. But as filmmaking, Che is a primarily a stunt; its emotional content must come from the viewer. What is the audience supposed to learn? Only what it already thinks it knows.

Che — 2008, 257 min; at Landmark E Street.