Che: Part One

Not just a pretty face on your T-Shirt.

Released in 2008, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 24 Feb 2009 by Scott Morris
Che image

Given that Ernesto 'Che' Guevara has now become so iconic an image of the revolutionary that it's a legal requirement for every household to have at least one T-Shirt featuring his face, which is perhaps somewhat ironic given his ideals, the main thing that surprises me about him is how vanishingly little I know about him. I had rather hoped that Steven Soderbergh's two-part examination of his life would provide some insight. It's a little strange then, that after two hours of film-making I still feel I know next to nothing about him.

Based in large part on Che's memoir, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, the scope of this film does seem to be very tightly limited to Che, and specifically Che's part in the 26th of July movement, the armed struggle against WWE superstar Dave Batista's US backed junta and ending more or less on its overthrow. While it shows off Che's leadership, his bravery, and his charisma, it's surprisingly short on explaining his ideals and his politics, which is surely the more interesting thing here?

These, it would seem, are going to be looked at in more depth in the second part, the imaginatively named Che: Part Two. While this increasingly common 'half a film' syndrome is typically a source of pure, uncut, unadulterated irritation for me, I have to concede that in this case it may be something of a blessing. This can best be described as methodically paced, or if we're being rude about it, plodding. Despite being set almost in its entirety in the middle of a civil war, typically full of such fun and exciting things as shooting and explosions and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Che's revolutionary life is often rather sedate.

Che image

Coming to the struggle initially as a doctor, in the early part of the war he's often away from the frontlines and as one of Fidel Castro's most trusted and most charismatic lieutenants he's often put in charge of recruitment and training camps. It only seems to be, at least as far as this film is concerned, relatively late on in the war that he's given the chance to go into combat. While this is implied as something of a bone of contention, it's never really focussed on too intently. Did Che want to get his hands dirtier? Hard to say, and I'm only speculating because I'm fast running out of things to talk about.

Benicio Del Toro is surely the best choice for the role, and he plays it as well as I can imagine anyone doing so. The lack of any dynamism is hardly anything to lay at his door, but I'm not entirely sure that this is Soderbergh's fault, either. This isn't supposed to be a thrill-a-minute war film, although perhaps some would prefer it to be that way. It's at times almost ponderous, and if that's how events actually panned out for Che during the war then it's hardly appropriate to be too upset at what's closer to a documentarian approach than a sensationalist one.

After all, we've seen what happens when Soderbergh pulls out the stops to be deliberately pretentious and dull with Full Frontal, and this is a good long distance from it. Che rather winds up both as a film I like more than I can justify with cold, hard, facts, and also as a film I want to like an awful lot more than I actually do. As someone with perhaps more motivation than most to watch and pay attention to the film (refer back to paragraph the first's declaration of ignorance), this would seem to be slightly worrying for anyone less interested in the man's life than I.

That said, I like it, so there. Roll on the next part.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Steven Soderbergh
Cast list:
Benicio Del Toro (Ernesto Che Guevara)
Demián Bichir (Fidel Castro)