Che, Steven Soderbergh’s epic (or, at least, epically long) biopic of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s victorious revolutionary exploits in Cuba and later, fatal failure to replicate that triumph in Bolivia, is akin to a lovely butterfly trapped under glass. In effect two complementary 131-minute features wedded together, Soderbergh’s latest is a strikingly constructed, handsomely digitally-filmed museum display piece, one that immerses itself in the moment-to-moment details of Che’s contrasting campaigns, while at the same time frustrates immersion into Che’s psyche, depicting the rebel icon with such dry, alien detachment – in which his trademark facial hair, hat, cigars, and boots remain his most recognizable attributes – that any stabs at profound understanding prove futile. Part one is the more impressively composed half, its 2.35:1 aspect ratio and rich, verdant color palette expressing the optimistic hope and possibility of Che’s (Benicio Del Toro) communist activities alongside Fidel Castro, and its deft cross-cutting between 1956-1959 Cuba and Che’s 1964 U.N. appearance (shot in grainy black-and-white) lending some ideological context to the primary jungle-set proceedings. Especially during this opening segment, Soderbergh’s editing is dexterous, supple during quiet moments (such as when an audio clip from a broadcast interview accompanies sights of Che greeting new comrades) and sharp during the story’s many, crisply orchestrated firefights.
Yet while the director craftily jumps back and forth in time, he nonetheless avoids deeply investigating his protagonist’s motivations, a decision which keeps Che from devolving into simplistic pop psychology pap, but ultimately at the expense of plumbing any trenchant depths. As the Argentinean doctor-turned-revolutionary, Del Toro exhibits a stern countenance that expresses the weight of Che’s responsibility and the firmness of his conviction in a handful of snapshots, such as him staring at Fidel in 1956 on the boat to Cuba, or sitting alone in a kitchen in 1964, a fist against his forehead. However, as it segues to its 1967 Bolivia-set second half (shot in more constricting 1.85:1 with jumpier handheld cinematography and harsher whites), the film remains at once tightly affixed to Che and yet doggedly outside him – the reason Che is even in Bolivia is barely sketched – so that Del Toro’s physically imposing performance soon comes to resemble a Madame Tussaud wax statue, an approximation of life devoid of heart and soul. The same fate eventually befalls Che as a whole, its engrossing-in-the-moment drama staged with mechanical efficiency that, when coupled with its refusal to engage in meaningful analysis, keeps things chilly and remote. The result is a marathon portrait with all the insight of a Guevera t-shirt, failing, except in very small flashes, to ever actually express its subject’s intellectual or emotional passion.
(2008 New York Film Festival)