Che, the two-part epic chronicling the life of the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, was directed by Steven Soderbergh and released in 2008 to a mixed critical reception. Part One, generally seen as the weaker half of the film, tells the story of Che Guevara’s journey from middle class nobody to armed revolutionary and hero of the Cuban people. Part Two, generally seen as the stronger half of the film, is the story of Che leaving Cuba to join the revolution in Bolivia. His move to Bolivia was an unexpected one that surprised the Cuban people who, fresh from the revolution, found themselves abandoned by their lucky charm and left in the capable, but much less charismatic, arms of Fidel Castro.
The films are close enough in style to warrant being reviewed as a whole but there is a definite tonal shift that occurs between the films, which is said to represent the dream of a socialist revolution (the optimistic Part One) turning into the drab and depressing realisation of the reality of socialism combined with the hopelessness of most revolutions (the more morose Part Two). Both films are a how-to guide of how to perform your own revolution, and can often be seen as a revolutionary procedural film with its emphasis on the stark representation of the hardships of a revolutionary life. The first film is much better than the second film – not necessarily because of it’s positive attitude, but more because of the deep historical context and its more traditional style. For someone who doesn’t know a lot about Che Guevara, to watch the second film without the first film would be almost impossible. The first film is a very good standalone feature, the second film could not exist without the first. It’s clear that the films were divided for budget and time restrictions but, as two films, the first one is simply better. There is more action, more emotion, more to draw the viewer in. Aside from the last act, the second film is quite boring, and only interesting because of the shift in personality that Che undergoes from the first film. He moves from hopeful idealism to a quixotism, and is unrealistic about his own abilities and the abilities of those around him. It’s certainly interesting as a character study, but does not a good film make.
Aside from a career-making performance by Benicio del Toro, who clearly lived the role of Che while the film was being made, the cast are rounded out by an assembly of unknowns who melt into the scenery when del Toro is on screen. Although they make the film more realistic by being there it’s clear that the directorial intent is to show Che, Che’s life, and Che’s personality. Some critics have accused the film of only showing a one-sided version of Che’s personality and portraying him as an almost Christ-like figure, and this is understandable when one watches the film. Rarely do any flaws crack the surface of the character, and he is shown as holding infinite patience, confidence, reserve, and patriotic fervour for his countrymen and women. It would have perhaps been nice to have seen a little bit more of Che’s canoodling with the Americans and perhaps explored the strangely paradoxical relationship that the socialist Cuban revolutionary held with the deeply anti-Communist American government, with more scenes that showed him being paraded around dinner parties like a circus animal and seeming to really enjoy himself. This could have rounded out the character, who comes across as quite boring and one-dimensional personality-wise – there’s no internal conflict, only external conflict. Even through some of the tougher scenes in Part Two, in which Che encounters troubles with his health and the loyalties of his revolutionary band of comrades, he remains steadfastly loyal and perfect in almost every way. Del Toro’s performance was probably Oscar-winning, but the character he was playing was one-dimensional. It’s a strange dichotomy that can only be understood by watching the film.
Che is quite a change of pace from Steven Soderbergh’s earlier, more mainstream work (the Ocean’s films, Erin Brockovich, Traffic) but does retain the authentic period look and feel of the film of The Good German, a deeply flawed but very stylish neo-noir. It’s a very interesting look at an important period in history that people are perhaps unaware of, and is a very good introduction to the enigma of the face that adorns flags, items of clothing, keyrings and other adornments all over the world. Everybody has heard the name Che Guevara, but few know who he actually is. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s pretty amazing that it took fifty years for there to be a massive mainstream big-budget film based on his life and his role in not one, but two separate revolutions. For that reason alone, his story is worth telling.
Watch this if you liked: Carlos (The Jackal).
If Benicio del Toro was not available to play Che, the second choice would have been Val Kilmer.