Directed by Stephen Soderbergh
Starring Benicio Del Toro and Demián Bichir
Review by Scott Johnson
I recently watched William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, a nearly three hour long 1946 drama about three soldiers returning from the war to the same small town. I am sure that Wyler could have made a much shorter film that was still quite good, but the length of the film is not wasted for a moment. Without any fancy cinematography or stunning plot twists, Wyler carries us along with these characters as we watch them attempt to adjust back to civilian life. Even as the film was coming to a close, I felt connected with and interested in the characters and their lives and would have been happy to watch another hour.
I cannot say as much about Stephen Soderberg's 4 hour epic Che. The first two hours are worthy enough with Fidel Castro's guerilla army in the Cuban jungle, along with flashbacks to Che's trip to the UN as a Cuban official giving a fiery speech to the assembly, as well as a few scenes in Mexico City with the revolutionarys gathered in an apartment wearing suits and ties, discussing their plans to overthrow the Cuban government. The highlight is the final successful battle of the Cuban revolution in a series of exciting scenes that gives a sense of how such a small group could have defeated a state army.
There are also a number of characters to give the material some life, including Benicio Del Toro's Che Guervara, who is entirely convincing. Even more of a surprise, though, is Demián Bichir's Fidel Castro, who possesses the self-assured enthusiasm that a young Fidel must have had. We can see why this group would look to him for leadership and inspiration in the pre-revolutionary years, before he became a powerful lifelong bureaucrat who gave 7 hours long speeches.
The second two hours--the last year or so of Che's life as he attempted to lead another revolution in Bolivia--falls utterly flat. Supposedly it was filmed in a different aspect ratio and with washed out colors in contrast to the richer visuals of the first part. Unfortunately, hardly anything interesting happens and the characters are drab and lifeless. This includes Che, whose quiet in the first section gives him an air of brooding and mystery, considering everything else that happens. In the second part, he is just as dull as everything else.
But what is the point of all this? To show that the the period leading up to the successful revolution was exciting while Che's Bolivian campaign was much more dreary? That is hardly the recipe for a good film, could surely have been communicated in a shorter period of time, and is not all that enlightening.
But the dull pointlessness of the second half only points to problems in the first half. There is not much said about Che as a man or the revolution he was participating in. Certainly, the structure points to ways that the mini-society the guerillas built in the countryside was a precursor--for better or worse--to the society they took control of. But was it better or worse, and why did it turn out that way? Soderbergh does not say. With the first half as a standalone film, this may have worked fine. But as a piece of a larger film it only begs the question of what it is doing there at all beyond convincing us to stick around for another two hours.
Somewhat infuriating is the transition to the second part. We are transported from the end of the successful battle leading to the seizure of power to Che in Bolivia. But what happened in between that led Che to disappear from Cuba? Could he have been disillusioned by Fidel's Cuba or perhaps working with him as part of a larger plan to transform Latin America? Both of these seem possible in Soderbergh's Che--at one point we are told that Fidel is sending money to help Che, at another one of Che's Bolivian prison guards asks what it feel like to be slogging it out in the jungle while Fidel is having fancy dinners in Cuba.
At one point, a Frenchman named Régis Debray arrives to support Che. Debray was the author of the classic Sixties text Revolution in the Revolution? Presumably, Debray and Che would have much to say about each others respective theories of guerilla warfare--what a fascinating discussion that would have been! Unfortunately, Soderbergh treats Debray as just some French guy who got caught, hardly more than a footnote in the history Che's Bolivian campaign and meaningless to anybody who does not already know who his identity.
The only mystery these issues create is why Soderbergh seems so ambivalent about these questions. By skipping over Che's life as a leader in the Cuban state, he avoids one of the most difficult questions of Che's life and the life of any revolutionary: how do you reconcile the battle to change society with the humdrum--and often compromising--reality of building a new bureaucracy while attempting to liberate ordinary people? Presumably Soderbergh is telling us that Che was really a fighter and not a bureaucrat, more comfortable organizing a guerrilla army than leading a bureaucracy.
But this adds little to the mainstream view of Che as the romantic revolutionary. There is some subtlety for those looking for some details, but little depth to explain his actions, what he was fighting for, whether Cuba became what Che hoped it would, and why the Bolivian campaign was such a disaster.