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Monday, March 16, 2009
On Saturday night I sat through all four hours and twenty-eight minutes of Steven Soderbergh's Che and the director's hour-long Q&A session afterward. It was a challenge and a cinematic endurance test that left me feeling more than a little punch drunk. I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't walk out of the theater in a socialist daze muttering revolutionary slogans to random strangers in broken Spanish.
¿Usted no oye los gritos de la gente de Boliva? Gritan para la libertad. Coloque su capitalismo y tome sus brazos. ¡Cante la canción de las masas amontonadas! ¡Viva la revolucion!
Oh, sorry about that. For what it's worth, the flashbacks haven't been happening as much today. Honest!
Even without its daunting running time, Soderbergh's efforts to offer an unbiased look at the revolutionary's military efforts would be a slog. Unlike similar historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Che offers little in the way of context for the events surrounding Che's actions. The film is divided into two sections, the first covering the Cuban revolution and the second following his botched mission in Bolivia. An opening scene at a dinner party in Mexico City sows the seeds of rebellion, offering a quick rundown on the struggles of the masses in Cuba, but the rest of this first section is content to follow the day-to-day hassles of keeping soldiers motivated in a jungle.
Soderbergh, in his drive to remain impartial, forgets to make one of the most compelling political figures of the 20th century the least bit interesting. Benicio Del Toro does his best with the title role but the director doesn't give him much to do but glumly boss around his underlings, smoke and gasp for breath (Che suffered from asthma). During the Q & A after the film, an audience member stood up and asked Soderbergh why he didn't give women more of a role in the film. In his response he explained that this was a conscientious effort on his part and that everyone fighting in the revolution had family and wives waiting for them back home. Based on his research, Che was notoriously driven, unrelenting and cold, thus Soderbergh's film had to be the same in order to best capture him.
The events of the Cuban revolution at least keep the first half moving at a steady pace. The film's depiction of the Battle of Santa Clara is calculated and intricate, darting between an official's office to a raid on a train full of soldiers and into an apartment complex where Che's men tear through the walls in order to set up an elaborate trap. The final scene before the intermission is Che's best moment. As the leader and his men triumphantly drive towards Havana, Che spots one of his lieutenants driving a stolen convertible and forces him to drive back to Santa Clara to return it. He shrugs and shakes his head. His forces haven't even reached Cuba's capital and already everybody's missing the point.
In the hands of a director like Steven Spielberg, who is a master of capturing moments like this and the souls of even the most challenging of historical figures, Che could have been an epic worthy of its running time. Unfortunately, Soderbergh and the film are stuck firmly in "fly on the wall" mode. The second half captures the bleak hopelessness of the leader's efforts in Bolivia but it forgets to make us care at all. Why did Che, with his middle-class upbringing and medical degree, go to the lengths that he did? Why didn't he at least settle for a comfortable, high-ranking gig in Castro's Cuba? And how can a film set so close to the equator feel as cold as ice? All for the sake of authenticity.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara deserves a great movie. This isn't it.
Che will play at Cinema 21 through Thursday.