Steven Soderbergh narrowed the life of Che Guevara to two slices of his story, cast Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro in the role and gives us four hours and 17 minutes with the late Marxist icon.
What do we learn in those hours and hours spent in the jungles of Cuba and Bolivia? Che had asthma. He was a doctor who won over peasants by treating their illnesses in between battles. He met his wife on the march, in battle, in Cuba.
And we realize that he spent the years after the Cuban Revolution trying to replicate the brisk, armed populist uprising that he and Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir in the films, very good) pulled off in Cuba, "exporting" revolution to countries in Africa and Latin America.But the Che presented here is every bit the mystery he probably is to the millions of young people the world over who know him as nothing more than a bearded visage on a T-shirt. Soderbergh skips over much of Guevara's life, showing Che in Cuba in the more engrossing Che: Part One, and Che at the very end, on the run in Bolivia in the mid-1960s, in Che: Part Two. That might have worked, had the filmmaker given us more of the man than just long, documentary passages of Che leading soldiers through the jungle, giving "You want to go home, comrades?" speeches and foot noting red-letter dates in the Che myth -- when this town or that barracks was attacked, when this or that moment of betrayal hinted that things weren't going to work on that last dip he took from the Marxist well.
Who are these films for, Cuban high school history classes?
Soderbergh introduces us to the comrade who became Mrs. Che during his Cuban days (Catalina Sandino Moreno) but leaves out Che's womanizing. He hints at his self-discipline, but ignores the death sentences Che handed out post-revolution. The director takes us to a 1960s New York party, interview and United Nations speech, which gets at some of the man's free the oppressed/Yanqui Go Home philosophy. But Soderbergh wastes vast stretches of screen time in emotionless reveries in the training camps, in villages where Che tried to win over his own troops and the locals with tepid rhetoric.
It's not a celebration of the man, or even an adequate explanation of who he was, where he came from and what he wanted out of life, not in the way the sublime Walter Salles film The Motorcycle Diaries was. Not that a celebration was called for. Ernesto Che Guevara had his idealism born of witnessing American corporate imperialism first hand, and was something of an adrenaline junkie. He needed to ditch his wife and kids and get back to the thrill of revolution, the righteousness of the cause (shown in documentary footage that opens each film).
Del Toro plays Che as utterly poker-faced, more icon than man. When he snaps and savagely lashes out at a starving pack horse that balks at going any further in Part 2, you realize that this is what's been missing from both films -- outrage, humanity, failings and feelings.
In releasing this reverent, meticulous, fascinating but flaccid history in two lengthy parts (Part Two arrives next week at the Enzian), Soderbergh committed perhaps the greatest sin of all. He made Che boring.
Unless that was his point. Not everybody who looks cool on a T-shirt comes off that way in history.