Two halves of a massive coin
Sorry in advance if this ends up being a bit of an epic review, but you can't really do justice to Steven Soderbergh's truly vast biopic, all four and a half hours of it, without investing a bit of time and legwork into the analysis, so apologies. Also, sorry if the tenses go a bit weird when referring to it as one film or two. Both are technically accurate so I may switch between the two.
First off, let's dispense with the word ''biopic'', because I've seen the word thrown at this film time and again and it's not what the film is at all. It isn't about the life and times of Ernosto 'Che' Guevara (Benicio del Toro). There isn't a scene at the beginning where his brother gets killed by a Cuban industrialist and he then pledges to get revenge. There is no attempt to try to explain the motivations of the man or to offer us an insight into his home life. Indeed, what little we see or hear about his life is limited entirely to the experiences that are occurring on the screen. What it is is an attempt to tell the stories of Che's two revolutionary campaigns; Cuba (covered in Part One) and Bolivia (covered in Part Two), using his own writings on those campaigns as the basis for their structure.
Part One is probably the best place to start as it's the more accessible and, arguably, more enjoyable of the two, seeing as it is, in the simplest possible terms, a success story. We follow Guevara from his first meeting with Castro at a dinner party, through his journey to Cuba, the battles and setbacks in the jungles, all the way to the final triumph and overthrow of Batista's dictatorship. This is all being related to a journalist interviewing Che in 1964 as he prepares to give his address to the U.N. in New York, so whilst you see young Che as the somewhat ill-prepared but committed guerrilla fighting for his life and the freedom of Cuba in the 50s, you get a contrast with the fierce ideologue and military leader that he had become by the mid-60s. Soderbergh contrasts the two subtly but, whilst these latter day segments, shot in grainy, newreel black and white, break up the war film action of the rest of the film, they don't really feel all that cohesive as parts of the overall experience, least of all when the film shows delegates from the U.N. asking questions of Che and criticising him, cutting back to the jungle for about twenty minutes, then returning to see his rebuttal, by which point you've forgotten what the questions were or at the very least got caught up in the action of the fighting so much that you don't really care. On the positive side, these sequences do show what a controversial and hated figure Che was by the time he visited America and those segments probably could have been more interesting if they had focused on that aspect.
There is just something more inherently audience-friendly about Part One since it tells a story that the audience can root for, and the battle sequences are superbly handled by Soderbergh, with the stand-out being the taking of Santa Clara at the climax (although, I suppose it's only the halfway point in the grand scheme of the film). Each sequence puts the camera right in there with the troops on the ground, giving a feel of a documentary being made in the jungle with the men fighting. This gives each scene a disorientating sense of simultaneous intimacy and distance, in a strange way making the audience care about what's happening in an oddly underhanded way. I spent the first hour not being certain whether or not I was interested in what was happening, then during the Santa Clara sequence I found myself on the edge of my seat and completely investing myself in the characters, even though most of them were barely sketched in comparison to Che. More about him later.
Part Two is definitely the more challenging and outright difficult. This was always going to be the case, though, since where Part One is a film about a staggering success, Part Two is a film about abject failure. Everything that went right in Cuba, goes wrong once Che sets foot in Bolivia, and the sense of inevitable success is replaced wholly by one of fear and impending doom. It's a slow Bataan Death March of a film that creeps towards its denouement with a certain fitful reluctance, like a man being led to the gallows. That's not to say its not good, in fact there's a strong argument to be made for it being the better of the two, it just means that it's not all that fun.
The atmosphere of Part Two is probably its greatest strength. It truly is a film with the shadow of death hanging over it and the protagonists are dogged at every step by paranoia, distrust and the threat of defeat. However, as I've already stated, this does mean that the film ends up as a much more sombre and downbeat affair than the triumphal first half. What few traces of humour existed in Part One are all but eradicated in Part Two, and there is no sense of comradeship or bonhomie before the guerrillas, all of whom seem to have no real confidence in their cause but who soldier on, seemingly because they are so drawn to Che that they could not abandon a cause he fights for even if all looked hopeless.
It's really not hard to see why, since the crucial piece of Che's puzzle is its title character and the man who has taken the brave task of portraying a man who became a legend by his actions and a symbol by his death. To imbue someone who is so ingrained in the popular culture with real sense of humanity takes a great deal of skill and Benicio del Toro makes it look effortless, which initially made me think that his performance wasn't all that great. His performance is subtle and does not rely on displays of ACTING to get the point across; he quietly dominates the screen and completely embodies not only Che but also the idea of Che. The distance created by Soderbergh's direction means that we observe Che as his men did, but we don't really know him, at least not straight away. Part One takes its time establishing the character and is as much about the process of how Che evolves with the expanding and advancing revolution as it is about trying to humanise him. We first see him as a doctor who has joined a cause that he believes in but which he is not yet prepared for. Over the course of the film, he starts to become the man that would lead men in successful guerrilla campaigns, carry out executions and become a hero to the Cuban people, and a villain to others.
Part Two then becomes about how this now intractable man faces a new Revolution without adapting to new ways of thinking, still fighting his last war and failing to see the severity of the mistakes that befall him and his men. He becomes a quixotic character who throws himself at his windmills with all the vigour and enthusiasm of his youth but without the ability to tell that things are very much going wrong for him. Part Two is clearly the more fascinating of the two from a character perspective since, having spent so much time with him, it is almost shocking to see how everything that was positive about him in the first half contributes to his downfall in the second. That he maintains his charisma right to the bitter, pathetic end is really quite an achievement on the part of not only del Toro but everyone else involved.
For all that, Che is a frustrated film that falls short of being the masterpiece that it could have been. Since it is telling the story of two guerrilla campaigns, both films move in fits and starts, with battles and crises emerging out of nowhere and the narrative lurching forward rather than smoothly riding along. This is less of problem in the slower, more deliberately paced Part Two, but is still suffers from the same problem. Some of the relationships in Che's life that would have been the most important are barely touched upon, with that between him and Fidel Castro being infuriatingly enigmatic, and even though I appreciated the way in which the film kept a distance from Che, I still would have liked to have been given a greater sense of his inner life. This is probably the most frustrating thing about Che since, if you'll pardon the pun, you can't really see the wood for the trees with regards to Guevara himself. The film is so intimate in its focus and yet so reticent in its details that you get a sense that he is human but not that he is a man. The film aims to demystify Guevara, which it does, even if only by showing how bad his asthma was, but does so without illuminating him. We see him as those around him saw him, rather than as the world has come to perceive him. However, this approach also means that we see Guevara and not the reaction to him, so we see him fighting in the jungle but not as a sort of folk hero.
In a way, that's a real strength of the film. Soderbergh claims that he had no agenda coming into the film regarding Che and I think that comes through; Che certainly does espouse his own philosophy and politics throughout but there is no sense that the film or film-makers want you to believe them as well. It doesn't decry them, nor does it go to great lengths to denounce the violence that Che carried out against traitors in Cuba, but it does present its story in a matter of fact way and leaves it to each individual audience member to bring their own interpretation of Che to the film and have it confirmed or challenged by what they find there. I had no real previous knowledge of the details of Guevara's life or campaigns, though I did own one of those T-Shirts when I was 16 because I was a twat at 16, and I found the cinematic version to be a captivating, driven man of principle who had great compassion for the people he was trying to help, highlighted in both halves by his use of his skills as a doctor to help companeros and campesinos, as well as an overwhelming belief in and love of humanity.
It's an exhausting undertaking but I truly believe that the only way to see Che is in its complete form, rather than separately. Each half compliments the other and I imagine that they will inevitably end up being weaker viewed separately. Plus, if you're going to commit to it, you should get it out of your system in one fell swoop. It's ambitious, bold and largely successful and Benicio del Toro is truly magnificent in the title role. It shoots for the stars and, even if it doesn't make it, it shouldn't be penalised for only making it into the stratosphere. A breathtaking attempt to tell the story of a fascinating man.
Also, Part Two has one of the strangest cameos you will ever see: Matt Damon, playing a German priest, speaking Spanish!