It worries me when people huff that screen portrayals of political figures must convey every nuance of real life. Hope they don’t mean I can’t do my own thinking on a subject, poor witless me. But yes: Che tells you little about Ernesto Guevara and even less about revolutionary Cuba, and on that score Steven Soderbergh must be said to have failed.
I don’t think he cares. By building an epic from all the talky exposition bits that normally sit between set-pieces, and then taking out the set-pieces, he’s made a bio-pic that seems both innovative and completely stationary at the same time. It feels like a brave experiment, one likely to perplex audiences and divide critics (on generational lines, as Karina Longworth intriguingly noted). It also suggests that there may be no subject on Earth that he won’t tackle like an equation to be solved with pencil and slide rule.
But the engineer in him has made sure that the two halves of Che complement each other like machined cogs. The Argentine is all widescreen color-saturated anamorphic jungle landscapes, rendered in digital clarity by the RED camera which apparently let Soderbergh (and his cameraman, that ever elusive phantom “Peter Andrews”) dispense with close-ups and just build his plot from one master shot after another. Then it ends with a last act of conventional action, the assault on Santa Clara that follows Che and his elfin lieutenant Aleida (beguiling played by Catalina Sandino Moreno as the cutest revolutionary in the hemisphere) through a solid combat film. Revolution duly follows, off-screen.
Part Two is a different beast in every way. Guerrilla is a fragmented mosaic, framed in tight 1.85:1, filmed in a palette the color of dust, and peopled with large groups of bearded gentlemen of no fixed identity, all bogged down in the Bolivian jungle. This makes Guerrilla is a tough sell for lots of reasons. Che himself spirals down into failure and disaster, and in a fairly calculated balancing move some actual stars arrive to juice things up, few of them looking very comfortable. Lou Diamond Phillips worries at the part of Mario Monje without getting very far into his on-off support and maybe-betrayal of the guerrillas, and Matt Damon stands on tacks for one twenty-second appearance as a character never seen again.
Then there’s Franka Potente as Tamara Bunke. I love Franka to bits, but she gets the short end of Soderbergh’s experimental stick here. There’s just no room in the director’s chosen method to penetrate into someone like Bunke, glimpsed in a cocktail dress with the President of Bolivia, then easing into a life as the only worthy distaff guerrilla, and finally coming to a sticky end in one of the film’s many isolated pockets of failure, her motivations still a mystery.
As for Che, Benicio Del Toro plays him with all stops in, a glowering presence who tends to spur his troops with an occasional motivational phrase and a cajoling growl. You get no glimpse of the man’s inner workings, little feeling of fire in the belly and certainly no sense of a historical moment building up a head of steam behind him. Soderbergh, contrarian as ever, refuses to film Che as any kind of an icon, leaving him onscreen as just a man with a cause and a persuasive manner. It makes for the least political agit-prop imaginable. Brave or naive, it’s a sight to see.