Easily the most ambitious film by an American filmmaker this decade, Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four-and-a-half hour biopic (though I use that term very loosely here—more on that later) Che is the grand cinematic experience of this year. Coming on the cusp of a rather lackluster year at the movies after a strong 2007 (we were spoiled with bold, visionary modern masterworks like There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) this is exactly the shot in the arm cinema needs right now. It’s not a flawless piece of work (the biggest misstep is a random Matt Damon cameo that pulls you out of the film), but it has no equal in terms of scope, detail and you-are-there realism.
Part One (also known as The Argentine) covers the rise of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, from his fateful meeting with Fidel Castro in 1955 Mexico City to the end of the Cuban Revolution, spliced with moments from Che’s 1964 celebrity-like visit to the UN in New York. Part Two (also known as Guerilla) sees him moving the revolution to Bolivia. Part One is about victory; it’s a war movie, essentially, filled with exciting battle scenes. Part Two is the flipside, showing the failure of the Bolivian campaign and the cost of guerilla warfare.
Defining this film as a biopic is misleading, though, as it follows none of the conventions that audiences have become so familiar with in that done-to-death genre. Che is more about a specific time and a man. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman aren’t interested in glorifying Guevara or reaffirming his idol status. The film doesn’t have an agenda, which is one of its best attributes. Buchman used Guevara’s diaries during the campaigns as the basis for his script, but through interviews with people who were there and consultation from Che biographer Jon Lee Anderson the film achieves a perfect balance of the subjective and the objective.
The objectivity is most apparent in the way the films were shot. Using the new red camera (a high performance digital camera with the quality of 35mm film and the convenience of pure digital), Soderbergh takes us into the jungle (the greens pop off the screen) and keeps the audience there for most of the story. The director clearly revels in this new technology, and the results are impressive. Another interesting aspect is the framing of the shots. Guevara is part of a group, so in many scenes he doesn’t take center stage—he often appears to the side or in the background.
I would be remiss to not mention Benicio Del Toro’s impressive performance as Che. He commands attention at all times. He shows Guevara as a man who cared for his troops but demanded their best efforts and sacrifice, able to inspire and instill fear with a quick, wordless glance. Del Toro is one of our very best actors (my favorite performance of his is in Soderbergh’s Traffic), and here he gets the lead role he was born to play.
This is a rare filmgoing experience, one to be celebrated and discussed. It’s far more entertaining than I imagined it would be, and it’s historical without being dry. Che is now playing exclusively at the Uptown Theatre. The roadshow version of the film will show twice a day (at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m.) for a special admission price—with admission comes a collector’s booklet. No trailers or ads are shown before the film, it has a five-minute musical overture at the beginning, and a 15-minute intermission. The plan is for the roadshow version to show for one week only, and in subsequent weeks the film will be shown as two separate parts with normal admission prices.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.