Magazine | February 23, 2009, Issue

Boring from Within

A review of Che

There are two ways to watch Steven Soderbergh’s Che. The two-part, 257-minute immersion in the life, times, and military campaigns of Latin America’s most iconic Marxist has been released simultaneously in theaters and on your local cable company’s pay-per-view, so it can be experienced on the big screen with a single intermission, or at a more leisurely and intermittent pace on your living-room couch. I do not advise seeing this movie under any circumstances, but if see it you must, the couch is decidedly the way to go. You’ll be grateful for the pause button, and for the chance to escape at intervals into the kitchen, the out-of-doors, or your local tavern, the better to fortify yourself for the slog ahead.

Despite its running time, Che is granular rather than sweeping, confining itself to the nuts and bolts of Ernesto Guevara’s two most famous campaigns: the successful overthrow of Batista’s government in Cuba and the unsuccessful insurgency that he led, and died for, in mid-1960s Bolivia. There’s some other material woven in — a recreation, in black and white, of Che’s trip to Manhattan and the U.N. in 1964; and a few scenes with Fidel and his cronies in Mexico in 1956, just before they took ship for Cuba. But large swaths of Guevara’s remarkable story (his South American young adulthood, his years in the Cuban government, his African misadventures, his family life and love affairs) are left untouched. This is a tale of two insurrections, and nothing else: As Castro instructed — “within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing” — so Soderbergh has filmed.

It’s an unconventional approach to a biopic, and the results are a reminder of where those conventions come from in the first place. Keeping so much of Che’s life offstage denies the audience any real access to his psyche: Benicio Del Toro’s impersonation is impressive, but he’s all charisma and no personality; he’s playing an icon, not a man. This is, of course, how Guevara’s partisans remember him, and if you’re a member of the cult you may find Soderbergh’s movie moving and immersive. (Jean- Paul Sartre, who famously called his fellow Stalinist “the most complete human being of our age,” would no doubt be enraptured.) But as psychological portraits go, this one has all the thickness of a Che Guevara T-shirt.

In a sense, the film Che most resembles is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, insofar as its dramatic wallop depends on certain theological assumptions about its hero. But that comparison is far too kind to Soderbergh: Whatever your opinion of the gore, Gibson’s Passion managed to capture the Gospels’ grinding, gripping narrative momentum (they don’t call it the Greatest Story Ever Told for nothing), whereas Che is plodding, underplotted, and discursive, with the longueurs of a Terrence Malick film but little of Malick’s visual poetry. It’s boredom punctuated by gunfire — which is probably faithful to the experience of guerrilla warfare but seems like a poor way to design a movie.

#page# A number of reviewers have tried to turn this tedium into a virtue, by saying respectful things about Soderbergh’s emphasis on process, his interest in the logistics of revolution — recruitment and training, raids and ambushes, the wooing of the peasantry, and so on. But Che is all detail and no context: In the lush jungles of Cuba and the scrubby Bolivian highlands alike, you won’t be able to see the forest for the trees. Maps are supplied over the opening credits, showing the provinces of Cuba and the nations of South America, but you’ll labor in vain to make sense of Che’s campaigns on a strategic as opposed to tactical level. Battle plans are sketched out, promotions are granted and alliances wrangled over, and familiar actors pop up from time to time amid the shrubbery — Lou Diamond Phillips, Franka Potente, and, in a bizarre cameo, Matt Damon. But save for Demián Bichir’s vivid, fast-talking Castro, it’s awfully hard to tell one bearded, mudspattered guerrilla from the next, let alone figure out how the various forced marches, surprise attacks, and recruitment drives add up to victory or defeat.

The overall effect is too dull to be morally outrageous. Soderbergh’s approach to Che’s crimes is evasive, to put it mildly — there’s a reference to “executions” in his U.N. speech, and a Cuban exile involved in hunting him down accuses the captured Che of having killed his uncle, but otherwise the movie elides Guevara’s post-revolutionary reign of terror the same way it elides so much else about his life. This would be offensive in a better film — as in Walter Salles’s The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), for instance, whose vivid, bustling recreation of the younger Che’s South American wanderings felt morally dubious precisely because it made Guevara seem like such a captivating figure without once acknowledging his crimes. But Che is too tedious to inspire anything save perplexity, and frequent glances at your watch. The religious anthropologists of the future will probably have a field day with it, but unless you’re one of the last believing Marxists, you’ll feel as though you’re trespassing on the interminable rites of a nearly defunct religion. It’s like a four-and-a-half-hour hymn to Zeus.

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