I’m glad I got to see Parts 1 and 2 of Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious Che biopic back-to-back in a marathon (257 minutes!) movie experience to truly appreciate Soderbergh’s cinematic flair, Benicio Del Toro’s fine acting, and a portrayal of El Che that fleshes out the hype and, more importantly, the crash in the life of the Revolutionary Icon.
Do you really need a spoiler alert? I didn’t think so. We all know the classic image of Che, all war-weary but proudly peering out into the distance. We even know the basics of his story, even if we haven’t read the books or seen the documentaries. Soderbergh taps into this casual knowledge and drops us right into the story at two key junctures the life of Che with minimal exposition.
Part 1: The Argentine
This is the better movie of the two if all you want is a feel good (cue the Beatles) You say you want a revolution (end Beatles) be all and end all to Che’s T-Shirt story. This isn’t to say Part 1 is bad, it’s actually very layered and beautifully shot with a strong ensemble cast that all shine in their roles.
We start at the height of Che’s vatic powers, his 1964 interview in New York with Lisa Howard right before his address to the United Nations Council. Soderbergh’s cuts in and out of this brief part of Che’s life with stark high contrast documentary style black and white footage, an emphasis on the New York winter (everyone is bundled up), and access to NYC’s socially elite and the halls of the UN’s General Assembly. We get very little access to the lives of everyday New Yorkers and Americans except for shouts from protesters from afar and brief interactions Che has with the local proletariat (cops assigned to protect him, an overeager interpreter and a chit chat with the Cuban Embassy cook).
A whole different movie takes place when Soderberg’s brings us back to the scenes of the Cuban Revolution. Here the colors are lusher, the shots wider in scope (often out of focus), the sounds of the Sierra Masetra dominate, and we are introduced to a myriad of allies in the Revolución (I honestly started to lose count of who was who and their roles). Here we witness the transformation of Ernesto Guevara, M.D., into Che, the guerrilla comandante, as he leads a myriad of troops through internal strife, government opposition and the mountains themselves to victory. Heroic speeches and macho gunfights are abound but so is some unexpected and well-timed comedy as well as the sense that Che, the warrior poet, believes you should only pick up a gun if you are literate and educated about your cause.
The film rolls along at a steady but patient pace as we witness the various Revoluciónistas’ ideologies and reasons for fighting as well as the lives and conditions of the Cubanos they seek to serve battle by battle as we build to Che’s victory at Santa Clara. The celebration after so much strife and loss leads to Part 1’s most cliché line as the victorious guerrillas claim final victory for the revolution and Che reminds them: “We have only won a war, the Revolution begins now!” Corny? Yes. But it works because Soderbergh has given us so much to rally around and the theater collectively loses its historical memory and breaks into applause as Part 1 ends.
Part 2: Guerilla
This is the grittier of the two films and if seen by itself would probably be an awful experience as the sexiness of a victorious uprising is replaced with the blight of an impossible war. This is the part of the Che myth people don’t want to talk about, how he died on the losing end of an insurgence that was doomed from the start. Soderbergh creates a more straightforward linear narrative here with Che insistently pushing the story along against just about everyone’s wishes.
We skip from the victory of Santa Clara right to Che’s departure from Cuba and arrival in Bolivia. By doing so, we also skip over his time as the second in command of the Cuban Communist Government, his travels to China and the USSR, and, more importantly, completely skip over his other failed efforts in the Congo (a precursor to his doomed Bolivian campaign) but we know have Guevara elevated to the unofficial position of El Che, the fabled comanadante.
At first, the Bolivian Highlands seem very much like the Sierra Maestras (although now Soderbergh’s wide shots are more in focus) and the elements seem in place for another successful Américan Revolution but things go downhill fast for Che. The Comunistas of Bolivia are against him, his own agents are defying his orders, the locals aren’t receptive to his call for literacy and better living conditions, and his own troops are fighting more to be with Che than to win a war. The slide gets progressively worse as the Bolivians have joined up with the CIA who see a great opportunity to do eliminate an opposition player without getting their own hands dirty. Can it get worse? It does and through it all Che keeps fighting on in an almost complete reversal from the heights Part 1 brought us to. By the end of Part 2, Che is really no longer Che (his men are under orders to call him Ramon) and is back to being the company medic for a group of undisciplined insurgents who are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. The finale comes quickly for his troops and for Che himself as he dies as valiantly as possible with one last flashback to Fidel and the start of his trip to Cuba.
In retrospect, Soderbergh does a fine job of portraying the construction then deconstruction of Che with the attention such a mythic figure deserves. Benicio Del Toro’s portrayal of Che is dead on with moments of levity, tenderness and uncertainty effortlessly mixed in with a true sense of purpose. The rest of the acting is for the most part top notch with some forgettable roles from some of the guerrilla fighters who either don’t stay on the screen very long or who have too short a back story.
And this is where Part 2 really falls short for me. Part 1 gave us so many stories and angles to view the Revoluciónistas and their sympathizers that we can live with the fact that The Argentine is viewing Che’s life from the side of his comrades. Part 2 is loaded with people who hate or love Che for no other reason than he is El Che. With only his past glory to ride on and very little to add to it, the Che in Guerilla becomes hollow and unsympathetic, we keep hoping the Che from Part 1 to come back and he doesn’t until the very end.
Luckily, Soderbergh gave me enough fuel in Part 1 to get through Part 2 and appreciate the message that the truths behind our myths, the reality and hardships our heroes (or villains) live through is very real and not always the fodder for uplifting Hollywood storytelling and that not every tale—especially the propaganda fables—has a good ending.
Che, both Part 1 and 2, offers a broad canvas to see the story of one of the 20th centuries most mythic figures and should be viewed side-by-side (maybe with a good lunch break between) and enjoyed on the big screen where it belongs.