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.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

The Survivor

Rep. Peter King’s Washington, D.C., office is stuffed full of New York memorabilia. Every wall is covered with framed photos of actors and baseball players (King’s allegiance lies with the ...
Politics & Policy

The Hot Seat

There are more pro-life Democrats, even now, than you might think. There’s no denying that the numbers have dropped off over the years. In the early years of the abortion ...
Politics & Policy

The Anti-Keynes

In the current economic-policy debate, the ideas of John Maynard Keynes are resurgent. Here are some of the results: Federal deficit spending soon will reach, and far exceed, previous peacetime ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Our Lincoln

‘What is conservatism?” This question has been getting more than its usual share of raking over in the post-Bush beginnings of 2009. But it was being asked in terms just as ...
Politics & Policy

At What Cost?

Conservatives should stop trying to remove 12 million illegal aliens from American soil, either by rounding them up or by inducing them to “self-deport.” In the Southwest, the West, the ...
Politics & Policy

Factory Man

I still remember the first time I walked into a working factory. In the foreground, innumerable machines whirred and clacked away in precise, interlocking dances. A massive vat shaped like ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

A Small Tent

The question Roger Simon seeks to answer in his unsparing, alternately funny and sad but always fascinating second-thoughts memoir is: Why did he change from an idealistic Hollywood leftist to ...
Politics & Policy

Boring from Within

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 ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Pennsylvania-Kentucky Longrifles I’d like, if I may, to correct some misperceptions about what I do and do not argue in my book American Rifle: A Biography — reviewed in the December ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ We liked limousine liberals better when they paid for their own cars. ‐ Former senator Tom Daschle, who withdrew his nomination to serve as secretary of health and human services, ...
The Long View

From the POTUS Inbox . . .

To: Husseinsmymiddlename@whitehouse.gov From: rahmemmanuel@whitehouse.gov Subject: Need clarity on tax issue Sir: A question from some of the new guys in the cabinet: If you’ve received more than $400,000 in small, unmarked bills from anyone ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

FEBRUARY Some flaky kid gave me gravel for a grin, I’m bundled up against the cold in a cast-off coat, and the scarf — that’s a joke, am I right? There’s nothing I can ...
Happy Warrior

The Children’s Crusade

The other day I found myself wondering when the conversion rate would become an avalanche. To Islam, I mean. If you’ve been following recent developments in the Netherlands, you’ll know ...

Most Popular

U.S.

How to Bend the News

This, from ABC, is a nice example of a news organization deliberately bending the truth in order to advance a narrative that it wishes were true but is not: Venerable gun manufacturer Colt says it will stop producing the AR-15, among other rifles, for the consumer market in the wake of many recent mass ... Read More
U.S.

Trump’s Total Culture War

 Donald Trump is waging a nonstop, all-encompassing war against progressive culture, in magnitude analogous to what 19th-century Germans once called a Kulturkampf. As a result, not even former president George W. Bush has incurred the degree of hatred from the left that is now directed at Trump. For most of ... Read More
World

Iran’s Act of War

Last weekend’s drone raid on the Saudi oil fields, along with the Israeli elections, opens a new chapter in Middle Eastern relations. Whether the attack on Saudi oil production, which has temporarily stopped more than half of it, was launched by Iranian-sponsored Yemeni Houthis or by the Iranians themselves is ... Read More
Education

George Packer Gets Mugged by Reality

Few journalists are as respected by, and respectable to, liberals as The Atlantic’s George Packer. The author of The Assassin's Gate (2005), The Unwinding (2013), and a recently published biography of Richard Holbrooke, Our Man, Packer has written for bastions of liberal thought from the New York Times Magazine ... Read More