Portrait of a revolutionary, in two parts
In "Che," Steven Soderbergh recalibrates the way he does everything - how a story gets told, how actors are managed, and how an audience is entertained. One of the movie's smartest commercial directors has turned the volume way down on the vibrancy that made the "Ocean's" movies such extravagant toys and pushes a few heady ideas to the foreground. The effect, though, still manages to be immersive and immediate. You can smell the gun smoke and taste the cigars.
In making a film about Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine doctor turned rock-star guerilla, Soderbergh forgoes the standard movie biography highlights. The Che we meet is a fully grown adult, a complete creature of the present. (For a dewy glance backward at young Che, there's Walter Salles's "Motorcycle Diaries.") This Guevara, who suffers debilitating asthma attacks, is spared a conventional "story arc." He wars. He smokes. He dies.
Hipsters beware. At almost 4 1/2 hours, "Che" is more tract than T-shirt, a portrait less Andy Warhol silkscreen than graduate-school dissertation.
The film is delivered in two halves. The first, adapted by Peter Buchman from Guevara's "Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War," distills the revolution to a year-long westward trek across the island that ended at the beginning of 1959. The second, adapted by Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen from Guevara's Bolivia diaries, skips ahead to 1966 and Guevara's attempt to foment social revolution among that country's rural underclass. The film's distributor, IFC, had considered exhibiting the film as two separate movies. But the two halves need each other. "Che" is an argument with itself.
Benicio Del Toro plays Guevara (he also is one of the producers), and what he does with his assignment is sly. This Guevara is revered, but Del Toro himself resists reverence. Part one cuts back and forth between the guerillas' march toward Havana and scenes of Guevara's trip to New York City in the winter of 1964, where he addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Del Toro's refusal to dominate these scenes without ceding any of Guevara's authority is a study in actorly self-confidence.
The naïve film I was nervous Soderbergh might make of Guevara's life is at least in part a film about naiveté. The movie omits Guevara's unsuccessful attempt to bring a version of the Cuban revolution to Congo. But the Bolivian mission proved a fatal failure, one that allows the movie to cast its judgment on the sincere folly of a one-size-fits-all people's movement, which, by extension, dramatizes one of Marxist ideology's flaws. There is also the possibility that Guevara needed the scope of Castro's vision to guide his own strategic sense. Demián Bichir plays Castro. His captivating incarnation suggests a born leader, whereas Guevara was seriously serious.
Soderbergh uses Del Toro's performance the way he operates his camera (the director shot the movie himself under the name Peter Andrews): It's another piece of equipment. The labor applied to "Che" is apparent, but it would be wrong to characterize the movie as laborious the way it was in, say, 2006's "The Good German," where Soderbergh took great pains to re-create 1940s Hollywood wartime glamour.
That film was a film about films in the way many of Soderbergh's films are - if he's not remaking old movies, he's slipping into old styles and applying fresh coats of gloss. When this works, the way I think it does with his remake of "Solaris," it's a kind of regeneration. "The Good German" had a strong "Casablanca" streak. But the movie didn't work in Soderbergh's voice. It was karaoke.
With "Che," Soderbergh resists his attraction to conventional movie beauty. Soderbergh's more starry entertainments - from "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" to "Full Frontal" - have also struggled when they've tried to be more. Politically speaking, it's entirely possible that Guevara would hate many of Soderbergh's movies, his commercial triumphs of capitalism over more capitalism. But this time, a more purposeful intelligence carries the director through. This interpretation lands equidistant between Jon Lee Anderson's vast 1988 biography of Guevara and something more abstract, like Gus Van Sant's minimalist reconfiguration of Kurt Cobain in "Last Days."
In "Che," actors you might recognize (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Julia Ormond, Franka Potente, Jordi Mollà, Victor Rasuk, Oscar Isaac, Matt Damon) come and go. Again: more equipment.
The film's restaging of the decisive Battle of Santa Clara in late December 1958 features some of the tactical filmmaking brilliance that Soderbergh sustained for three "Ocean's" movies. A train hurtles toward a flight off its rails. A man sledgehammers through five walls and into a church. The camera tracks to the right then to the left of a parked truck to reveal the action on either side.
It's amazing that this movie, with its stretches of profound quiet (only on a second viewing did I really hear the soothing variety in Alberto Iglesias's score), has come from a man who excels at extravagant Hollywood classicism. "Che" is not an easy movie to sell (I don't envy IFC at all), but in the coming years when the pressure of award expectations and marketing demands dissolve, Soderbergh's film will be there ready for a serious audience to appreciate its makers' achievement.