After railing about the treatment of Hunter S. Thompson in the documentary THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DR HUNTER S. THOMPSON it’s time to turn to another icon of the disaffected youth, a man who you’ll recognise from numerous t-shirts, hats and other merchandise, Che Guevara.
But, as I’m sure you all now, the famous bearded man with a beret is more than just a marketable logo. The famous Argentine Marxist was a key figure in Fidel Castro’s Cuban uprising, and unlike the languidly poetic THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES Che focusses on his time as a guerrilla fighter in the 26th July Movement. This, of course, means that there is a lot less pontificating and a lot more fighting, which makes for a much more exciting movie. There is still plenty of beautiful cinematography of the Cuban jungles from which Castro’s guerrillas launched their early attacks, but this is used as a stunning backdrop to what is in essence a uniquely personal war movie.
Steven Soderbergh’s sprawling biopic was so long (four hours) that it had to be divided into two in order to be commercially viable. Ordinarily I would rant against such a decision, but in this instance it seems to have been a very well-judged move. Because the films cover so much ground, to cut them down would be to risk making the events excessively glossy (as THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES was to some extent), or too much like a traditional war film. This way we have enough time to really engage with Ernesto Guevara without skimping on his reputation notoriously harsh discipline for a more full depiction of his unwavering idealism or vice versa. What’s more, the film is so enjoyable that I came out desperate to see the next part: which is exactly the reaction the film needs.
Part of the reason the film managed to suck me in so well is Benicio Del Toro. One of Hollywood’s favourite actors for anything Hispanic, Del Toro has managed to carve out a reputation that is tough to challenge, and his portrayal of Che may be one of his greatest achievements to date. As far as I am concerned, the hardest thing in any portrayal of the legendary revolutionary leader is mimicking his level of conviction. The sheer determination and strength of belief in his own cause is the foundation for any of the other attributes that have been awarded to Che over the years – positive or negative. In nailing this Del Toro succeeds in convincingly portraying a fighter, a disciplinarian, an idealist and a real man of the people. This is no easy task, even given two films spanning four hours!
But the quality of the film is more than a testament to Mr Del Toro’s acting skills, it is a reminder that Hollywood can make great films without ‘selling out’. I’m sure most of you didn’t need that reminder, but I really did. Seeing Steven Soderbergh deploy his talents to more than shiny and insubstantial dross like jquery.js unresponsive wordpress was a real pleasure, and it is his talent for such stylised character portraits that brought life to many of the characters who could otherwise have been slapped on screen as mere symbols.
Which brings me to the obligatory bottom line: Che:Part 1 (and hopefully part two) is a welcome portrayal of an icon which does plenty to bring a myth back to life. Superb performances and polished cinematography make the division of this lengthy biography into two parts a sensible decision which allows the film to be distributed in its entirety, safe in the knowledge that any audience who sees the first installment will not want to miss the second.
This article was first posted on December 11, 2008