Film Review: Che

An epic life becomes an epic movie in Steven Soderbergh's brilliant four-hour-plus look at two chapters in the life of revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

We're fortunate this holiday movie season to be gifted with two very different but equally strong entries in the often-problematic biopic genre. The first is Gus Van Sant's Milk, an account of the too-brief political career of slain gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. While surprisingly conservative in both its style and structure—particularly compared to Van Sant's recent run of movies from Gerry to Paranoid ParkMilk works within the genre's conventions to create a stirring moviegoing experience that resonates even more powerfully in the wake of recent events in California.

The flip side to Milk is Steven Soderbergh's Che, which avoids the standard biopic formula and ends up being an even richer, if less overwhelmingly emotional, experience as a result. In fact, calling Che a biopic isn't entirely accurate. Instead of recounting the biography of iconic revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara (played brilliantly by Benicio Del Toro), Soderbergh's two-part, four-and-a-half-hour film focuses on two specific periods in his life. Part 1 (originally titled The Argentine) covers his involvement in the Cuban Revolution, where he fought alongside Fidel Castro to overthrow General Batista, while Part 2 (formerly known as Guerrilla) covers Che's failed attempts to spark a similar uprising in Bolivia a decade later.

Although both parts of Che are set to be released separately (save for some markets like New York and Los Angeles, where the full 262-minute version will be shown in select theatres), they must be seen together to fully appreciate what Soderbergh has accomplished. What's striking about the film—and undoubtedly the reason why it has met with such lukewarm reviews since its contentious premiere at the Cannes Film Festival back in May—is that the director has chosen to tell Guevara's story almost exclusively through his actions in these two revolutions. Audiences have been trained by biopics like Walk the Line and Pollack to expect scenes that take us into the subject's private life, where we learn about his or her dreams, fears and self-doubts in painfully stilted dialogue. But aside from a few fleeting references to a wife and child in Part 1 and a brief glimpse of his family in Part 2, Soderbergh never shows us Che out of uniform. (Thankfully, he also avoids any sepia-toned flashbacks to life-altering childhood traumas.) He also rarely makes Guevara the center of attention in the frame, instead often shooting him as part of a larger group, perhaps as a deliberate visual echo of his famous phrase about the "unity between the individual and the mass." It's a bold choice on the director's part and it presents a significant challenge for the actor tasked with playing a person who is almost treated as a supporting character in his own life story. Del Toro is more than up to the task, though; indeed, he seems to relish standing slightly to the left of the spotlight. You never catch him acting as Che—he just slides into the revolutionary's skin and becomes part of the landscape.

If Che isn't exactly your typical biopic, it does fit squarely into the tradition of epic war movies. This may not be Soderbergh's biggest film in terms of budget, but you'd never know that based on the expertly choreographed combat sequences and remarkable location photography (as usual, Soderbergh himself mans the camera under his nom-de-cinematographer, Peter Andrews). Comparisons have already been drawn between this film and Lawrence of Arabia and while it’s too early to say whether Che will have the staying power of that David Lean classic, they are both large-scale epics that feel incredibly intimate. And just as Lean made the history of the Middle East come alive, Soderbergh provides the best bullet-by-bullet account of how Cuba was won (and Bolivia was lost) yet committed to the screen.

It's worth noting, by the way, that by narrowing his focus to these specific chapters in Guevara's life, Soderbergh has left himself wide open to criticism that he's not providing moviegoers with a complete portrait of a man some consider to be a monster. Certainly, it's convenient that he's opted to skip over the ten-year period between Cuba and Bolivia, when Che is said to have ordered the deaths of hundreds of Cubans in the wake of the revolution. Still, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Che romanticizes its subject; his fierce commitment to socialist ideals may inspire his followers, but the film also shows us how that passion clouds his judgment and ultimately leads to his downfall.

Soderbergh fans have been waiting for the director to find his footing again after a wildly uneven string of movies and he's rewarded their patience by making one of the best films of his career. Destined to go overlooked come awards time (though Del Toro's towering performance could and should be in the mix for any Best Actor trophies), Che's legacy should burn bright in the years ahead.