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Che: Film Misses the Mark on Legendary Figure

Posted by goldwriting on January 4, 2009

che For the last time, I was not Keyser Soze.

Rating: 7 out of 10

To the oppressed and abused, he was a legendary hero, to those in power, he was a dangerous revolutionary, and to the middle class hipsters in non-third world countries, he was a pop icon. It is truly an extraordinary person who can fill all these roles at once. He was a lightning rod, grabbing the electricity from the air, from the ground and from the people and using it to burn out the injustice he saw all around him. Whether you were a supporter, detractor or fair-weather fan, you can’t ignore the impact of the one they called ‘Che’.

Che is a gargantuan effort on the part of Steven Soderbergh to tell the story of one of the world’s most politically dynamic personalities. This film begins with his introduction to Fidel Castro and his unassuming beginnings in the armed resistance in Cuba, but it continues as we watch his rise in the revolution, his success in Cuba and his willingness and desire to keep the momentum going in other Latin American countries. The man detailed here is the strategist, the uncompromising moralist and a devout leader to his followers . The film follows his continuing revolution all the way to its tipping point and Che’s eventual downfall.

For any actor out there, starring in a four-and-a-half hour epic is a massive undertaking both in endurance and determination. It’s been a while since someone attached themselves to such a quest, but Benecio Del Toro bites into this role as if he knew this was what he had been waiting for his whole life. Del Toro never totally disappears into the character, but he does succeed in playing it with fire and passion which helps bring the audience through the slower sections. He attacks the story with an uncompromising passion for the cause and I honestly believe if Del Toro wanted to take a step into international politics, his charisma and intensity would win him plenty of respect. He also made one of Che’s main issues throughout his life, his battle with chronic asthma, so believable that during one of his attacks I could actually feel my own chest constricting. The only real question here is whether the audiences that see this film are going to be able to follow Del Toro seamlessly into his oncoming projects, like The Wolf Man. Parts such as this have a tendency to become nearly iconic and hard for an actor to shake off.

Although the character of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is the central focus of the film, there is a plethora of other people introduced throughout the hours-long epic. The problem here is most of them have a tendency to drift into the background and become unrecognizable. This same issue came up with Milk and Sean Penn‘s performance and level of detail leaving all the other characters feeling flat and one-dimensional in comparison. Che is told in Spanish with English subtitles, so there were no discernible accents or patterns of speech for the smaller characters and an overwhelming amount of them were all dressed in the same green army clothes. So in a number of scenes it became a struggle to be emotionally connected to who had just been shot or which captain of a wandering faction had just been discovered. On the flip side, there are two cameos in the film of well known actors which become very jarring since no one else in the entirety of the piece is incredibly recognizable to American audiences. Lou Diamond Phillips steps on as the leader of one of the Communist Parties in Bolivia and his presence is not totally off kilter for the film, but it does snap the audience out for a moment and make them realize the movie in front of them is not a documentary, but a fictional retelling of those events. As much as it hurts me to say this, worse still was the cameo of Matt Damon. Personally I love Damon and think he is one of the best actors out there in his age group. His appearance as a missionary was played fine, but it did nothing to strengthen the film. All it did was make a number of the film goers laugh during Damon’s one and only scene. It felt like a behind-the-scenes gift from Soderbergh to Damon, who worked wonderfully together on all the Oceans movies, but it will go down in film history as one of the worst cameo choices in terms of tone and importance.

I give mounds and mounds of credit to Soderbergh for attempting such a mammoth film, but in the creation of something so large he fails to really capture the dynamism and attraction of its central character. All we receive here is the military man, the up-and-coming revolutionary who will follow his moral code to its inevitable end, but there was so much more to the man who became the godfather of guerrilla warfare. The passionate side of Che, the teacher of not only tactics, but ethics and morals to his followers is missing from this film. Also, Soderbergh has continually defended this film by saying it is not a glorification of Che, but simply a statement on his worldwide impact during those years, but he failed to really explore the backlash, even from the Cuban people, to Che and his guerrilla tactics. Also, in the editing and creation of the two chapters (how most of the movie going audience will see it, not as one four-and-a-half hour piece), Soderbergh stumbles into making the first half about Cuba incredibly more interesting than the second half detailing Che’s efforts in Bolivia. The first half shows the making of the man, the spark which set Che in motion, but the following chapter only serves as more jungle warfare and feels slightly redundant. I feel it would have served the piece better to remove some of the military movements through various countries and slip in more scenes about who Che was underneath the tattered and torn uniform.

Recommendation: When the film does return to theaters around the country in two separate parts, go see the first one and feel if your interest will carry you through the next one. On its own the first one will remain a strong piece, but the second will falter in comparison. Also, if the film truly succeeds in anything, it definitely makes people want to know more about the medical student who went on to try and heal entire countries.

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