Benicio Del Toro as Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Steven Soderbergh’s sweeping four-and-a-half-hour long biopic Che is a stunning masterwork of documentarian vision, likely to set the bar for future works of historical biography brought to film. Profiling Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara in both the highlight and lowlight of his life in the mid-twentieth century, Soderbergh brings to the screen an account of Guevara’s successes and defeats that is both magnificently crafted and consistently engaging. Che is divided in two halves, the first about Guevara’s triumphant campaign of motivating a socialist revolutionary movement in Cuba to overthrow the government of United States-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and the second about his attempt to incite a similar yet unsuccessful guerrilla movement in Bolivia that ultimately led to his execution.
The film unfolds with a brave, objectivist stance that never wavers or never seems to lapse into the gratuitous fictional liberties that could overtake such a biopic as this. Onscreen, Benicio Del Toro as Guevara is a force; his conviction alone anchors the film and allows the viewer to sympathize with Che yet not at all times believe his choices to be correct. Del Toro emphasizes Guevara’s nonnegotiable desire for his guerrilla army to be educated and self-aware, and perhaps it is this sole trait that accentuates his undeniable charisma. Che pulls out a few cute casting surprises (Julia Ormond and Franka Potente are both welcome surprises), but heralds Del Toro as the rightful and undeniable star of the show.
The first portion of the film intercuts Guevara’s 1958/1959 campaign in Cuba with his speech before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in 1964. Soderburgh shows us New York in black and white, with the handheld-camera style of a documentary, punctuating Guevara’s preparation for his speech with snippets of an interview for American television. In contrast, Cuba is given the full-color treatment for the lush Caribbean jungle, and the viewer is treated to a sly (but never lecture-like) history lesson about the 26 Julio socialist movement in Cuba and how Fidel Castro, with Che by his side, rose to power. From the jungle to the streets of the city, Che’s guerrilla army grows in number and in strength; those looking for the punch of an action film certainly won’t leave disappointed after scenes showing a dazzling display of choreographed combat.
Once the second half of the film gains its momentum, it becomes clear how Guevara’s fervor and perhaps overconfidence in charging a socialist uprising throughout the world led directly to his downfall. His campaign in Bolivia was predicated on his success in Cuba, and it is to Che’s detriment that he did not understand that the people of Bolivia were not in need or of a desire for a grassroots uprising. Soderbergh shows us a Bolivia that is harsher, drier, and less navigable than Cuba, and this contrast highlights the confidence of his directorial eye (and, to boot, doesn’t disappoint with his trademark saturation of color when the ambient hues of the dawn and dusk allow for it).
Che is a master chronicle of historical drama on film, and it will be awhile before anyone can harness the electric energy that both Soderbergh and Del Toro bring to one of the best biopics in the history of cinema.