Well, it's not a masterpiece, but neither was the man.
Director Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-and-a-half-hour portrait of guerrilla revolutionary Ernesto 'Cheâ?� Guevara's seminal battles in Cuba and Bolivia is the work of an enchanter.
The first section, aptly titled 'Cuba,â?� meanders nearly to the point of cinematic hostility. There's Benicio Del Toro perfectly capturing the visage and thoughtful, sometimes preoccupied demeanor of the man in question as he befriends Fidel Castro, shares his ideology with a rapt American public, thanks Sen. Eugene McCarthy obnoxiously for the Cuban missile crisis ' the film jumps chronological markers while it finds its bearings ' and celebrates the successful conquest of Cuban peasants' hearts and minds, culminating (after another time-hop) in the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1958. It all happens fast, but not furiously; Soderbergh and Del Toro exude a cool knowingness about the events they're depicting and their ultimate irrelevance. They have other plans for this narrative and biography isn't one of them.
Shortly thereafter we see how Che did it, and the film's mission is revealed: It's a year in the life of a guerrilla warrior. Here's a hint: It's overwhelmingly dull.
Allow me a time jump of my own. When Soderbergh made the all-digital, day-in-the-life experiment Full Frontal in 2002, I was a broke film student who scrounged couch change to see it in the theater, where I was one of three people. The film was so pointless, so horribly shot and acted, that I left infuriated, believing the director used my time, money and attention to make a meta-point that shooting films digitally was not the future and would ruin film forever. He wasn't ' Che was filmed with a next-gen digital camera known as RED and looks gorgeous ' but I felt as if I'd been an unwitting participant in a big Hollywood insider prank.
I bring it up because I can imagine the same reaction from many who only see the first installment of Che. Most of this segment is willfully, meticulously boring. It lulls the viewer first into anticipatory restlessness, then into a bizarre dream state where we can feel the weight of the gear Che and his soldiers wear, and their hunger and desperation as they try to buy a pig but settle for sucklings. The rare moments that a gunshot whizzes by, we're just as surprised and, honestly, pissed off as the attacked; we almost want to say, 'Why are you ruining our camp-out?â?� Late in the film, one of Che's Bolivian enemies points out that while he's being held captive, suffering from excruciating asthma attacks and starving, his good friend Castro is living it up in Havana. Doesn't that sting? So closely do we identify with the guerrilla world at this point, we know exactly why Che shrugs it off.
Not until part two, 'Bolivia,â?� does it become clear how strong a spell the film has cast. This portion opens with Castro reading a letter from Che to a public anxious to hear of his whereabouts after the coup. 'I formally resign my positions in the leadership of the party, my post as minister, my rank of commander and my Cuban citizenship. Nothing legal binds me to Cuba.â?� We then follow Che to Bolivia, where he believes the people are ready for revolution. He's dead wrong, but still manages to recruit a team and, as with the first part, we're plopped into the jungle thickets with them as they try to find food, build tents and ambush the Bolivian militia. What they don't know is that the CIA is on the way to help the Bolivian government stop them. What they discover immediately, however, is the raging antipathy of the peasants (and even Bolivia's Communist Party) toward an overthrow.
And that's when Soderbergh begins the long, gentle process of obliterating our own sense of cinematic complacency. He's now happy to cut to lush, colorful scenes inside the Bolivian president's office, of CIA helicopters and their bases with characters straight out of a Michael Bay film. It's ugly and jarring, and intentionally so. The outside world and the broader geo-political consequences of Che's actions are closing in on him quickly. The time for Boy Scouting is finished, and now it's a war. Matt Damon drives into Che's camp, speaking Spanish. The docudrama has suddenly become a 'movie,â?� and Soderbergh's self-effacing humor acts as a party crasher. It's a small but brilliant move.
The filmmaker ' who directed, produced and acted as director of photography on the film, which is based on Che's own diaries ' clearly set out to demystify the myth of Guevara, still an incredibly divisive figure. But even his neutrality toward the subject will be perceived as silently condoning Che's philosophically contradictory methods ' he's only seen ordering the execution of defectors briefly. What isn't up for debate is whether he glamorizes the man. Che isn't the centerpiece of the film any more than the Camiri mountains are. To his followers he's an idea, the embodiment of a concept, and while he's dodging bullets and crawling through dirt with the rest of them, he never allows them to think he's anything more than one of them. Soderbergh's triumph is showing the mundane nature of living up to that idea; even Che's execution is, to Che himself, a particularly nasty part of a soldier's job. It's long been said that Che's words to his killer were glorious and defiant ' 'Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a manâ?� ' but here he matter-of-factly instructs the man to 'do it.â?� Serviceable words from a man who, in his mind at least, was only committed to the service of others. It doesn't take a masterpiece to understand that.