The mythic persona of revolutionary leader Che Guevara, whose legend has only grown in the decades since his death in the Bolivian jungle, makes tackling a biopic about the man all that much more daunting. To some he's a heroic martyr of the political left, to some he's a terrorist, and to some he's little more than a T-shirt logo. Steven Soderbergh sidesteps almost all of these problems in his nearly four-and-a-half-hour movie Che by focusing on what Che experienced, rather than concentrating on the politics.
The first half of the film follows Guevara as he helps lead Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution. After an opening scene where Castro recruits the Argentinean doctor, the movie places us in the jungle alongside a small band of guerrillas that steadily grows into the army that conquers Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista's military. Soderbergh shoots their various attacks in a fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité style that gives the audience a genuine immediacy -- a sense of both place and danger. We get an understanding of how these soldiers do what they do, and, miraculously, Soderbergh never bores us by trying to explain battlefield strategy. He keeps us aware of the forethought and planning that Castro puts into each of their missions, and because we trust Che, we never worry that the characters don't know what they're doing.
As the revolutionaries make their way to Havana, Soderbergh intercuts their exploits with flash-forwards to Che's 1964 trip to New York, including his address to the United Nations, and the grainy black-and-white cinematography used in these sequences lends them a documentary feel that contrasts with the lush, colorful jungle settings. While in the Big Apple, Che sits down for an extensive interview with a reporter, and Soderbergh uses Che's answers to her questions as a soundtrack during some of the battle sequences. While this should distance a viewer from the action, it actually has the opposite effect: these are the only times we feel we're inside Che's head, as Soderbergh avoids almost any mention of Che's personal life. This blending of the cerebral technique with visceral content makes the first half of Che a compelling and unique experience.
However, with the second half of the movie, Soderbergh shifts gears. After a brief opening sequence with Che entering Bolivia in disguise, the movie never leaves the jungle. There are no voice-overs or flash-forwards to give us any relief from the growing dread that mounts as the Bolivian Revolution fails in every way that the Cuban campaign succeeded. This is cinéma vérité in the extreme -- we are trapped right alongside Che, forever sensing that the end could come at any moment, but never abandoning the fight. It's a thoroughly exhausting feeling to experience for over two hours. Separated from the movie's first half, this is by no means a conventionally entertaining movie, but it's a remarkable piece of filmmaking. If the movie has a major flaw, it might just be that the second half is so insistently unvaried that the audience may start to ask the kinds of questions -- like why would Che leave his wife and kids to go to Bolivia -- that Soderbergh has no interest in answering. However, even with that fault, the first half of the movie succeeds so grandly that Che's eventual demise still hits us with the power of classic tragedy.
In fact, Benicio Del Toro deserves just as much credit as Soderbergh for making us feel the enormity of Che's personality. Because his dialogue never reveals his personal feelings, Del Toro must express Che's inner life almost solely through his physicality -- and, remarkably, he does. From Che's long, confident strides as he approaches the podium at the United Nations to his delicate care in lighting a cigar, Del Toro inhabits this often taciturn leader, and keeps us involved by imbuing even the smallest gestures with significance.
At nearly four and a half hours, Che plays at a resoundingly uncommercial length, and while it could have been shaped into an easier to digest three hours, it seems clear that Soderbergh has no interest in satisfying the typical audience's expectations in this regard. He wants the audience to feel Che's desperation and pride more than he wants to conform to the traditions of Hollywood filmmaking. And, for those able to meet the movie on its own terms, Che ranks as one of the most ambitious biopics in recent memory.
Che on AllMovie