Che: Part One
2008, R, 129 min. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Benicio Del Toro, Demián Bichir, Santiago Cabrera, Jorge Perugorria, Édgar Ramírez, Victor Rasuk, Armando Riesco, Catalina Sandino Moreno.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Jan. 23, 2009
Few filmmakers are as omnivorous as Steven Soderbergh. From early indie classics like sex, lies and videotape to his more recent star-saturated blockbusters, Soderbergh has remained one of our most challenging artists by refusing to let himself get boxed in by expectations, whether they're his, ours, or Hollywood’s. Just look at the man’s résumé. Who else would go from a heady epic about American drug policy (Traffic) to a remake of a Rat Pack lark (Ocean’s Eleven) to a throwaway satire of Hollywood (Full Frontal) to an update of a Tarkovsky sci-fi bummer (Solaris), all within the span of two years – and then top them all with a nearly five-hour (with intermission), shot-in-Spanish, neorealist meditation on the life of a long-dead South American revolutionary? Soderbergh’s legacy is his aesthetic daring, and his latest – as massive and imperfect as it is – just might be his most daring work to date. The first half of his epic about Ernesto “Che” Guevara (who also knew a thing or two about daring) focuses on the adventures in Cuba in the mid-1950s of the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary-turned-martyr-turned-god-turned-hipster-icon, when he and Fidel Castro led a ragtag guerrilla army to victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista (Part Two, released separately, is about Che’s less successful efforts in Bolivia). And when I say “focuses,” I mean it. In a sustained act of brazenness, Soderbergh ignores typical biopic trappings such as inspirational hagiography and political posturing to concentrate on the minutiae of life during those three years in the jungle: the slogs through heat and humidity; the slow peasant recruitments and disheartening defections; the training exercises and indoctrination; the long hours, days, weeks of boredom punctuated by sudden explosions of violence; and, of course, the increasingly bushy beards. The result is an epic in miniature, an anthropologist’s look at the thousand and one things one does in service of grand ideology – some thrilling, most mundane: find food, bandage wounds, lob Molotov cocktails, smoke cigars, execute traitors, etc. This Che (Del Toro) doesn’t give long speeches from atop hills or horses (Soderbergh saves those moments for his grainy, black-and-white footage of the leader speaking at the UN years later, when he was the scourge of Washington and the darling of Manhattan’s liberal intelligentsia); he’s too busy with logistics to channel his inner Henry V. And though lefty partisans might complain that Soderbergh’s film doesn’t show Che as the hero they say he was, and drama devotees will probably argue that it doesn’t pay enough attention to the inner life of the man he must have been, in the end Che isn’t really about a hero or a man; it’s about the mechanics of guerrilla warfare, the day-to-day workings of an insurgency. Give Soderbergh his due: It takes a lot of guts to give your audience a case study when they’ve been crying out for Spartacus for 40 years. (Che: Part Two opens next week on Jan. 30. See "Becoming Che," Jan. 23, for an interview with Del Toro.)