Nearly four and a half hours long, spanning more than a decade and reconstructing a pair of brutal insurgencies, "Che" surely deserves the overworked, frequently misapplied name of epic. Steven Soderbergh's new film, a two-part portrait of the Argentine doctor-turned-international revolutionary Ernesto Guevara (only Part 1 opens today), plants itself squarely in an old tradition of martial poetry: it sings of arms and the man.
But in chronicling the deeds of their hero -- and the heroism of Ernesto Guevara is not something "Che" has any interest in questioning -- Soderbergh and screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen restrict themselves to a narrow register of themes and effects. This is a long song composed in about three notes. Its motifs are facial hair, tobacco smoke and militant bombast.
The first half, detailing the grinding campaign of Fidel Castro's guerrilla army against the government of Fulgencio Batista, which culminated in Batista's ouster in 1959, is intercut with scenes of a visit to New York that Guevara made in 1964 to address the United Nations General Assembly. Those bits, shot in a gorgeously grainy black-and-white, offer a bit of visual relief from the long slog through the Cuban countryside, as well as providing an occasion for defiant revolutionary apologetics.
The New York passages also establish Guevara's status as a demon in the eyes of the American government and a celebrity and fetish object for, as far as the movie is concerned, everyone else. Journalists interview him in purring, fawning tones. Cocktail party guests in an elegant Manhattan apartment crowd around him. But Che, media star and darling of the international left-leaning intelligentsia, regards the fuss with detachment, preferring to sit and smoke with the common folk in kitchens.
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"Che," in effect, represents the position of a person at that cocktail party who feels superior to the others because, unlike those liberal phonies, he really understands, in the depths of his soul, the Cuban revolution and the agonies of the Third World. More dogmatic than thou, "Che" not only participates in the worship of its subject but also spares no effort to insulate him from skepticism. Benicio Del Toro's performance is technically flawless: You can be sure when he crooks his arm to look at his watch, or squints at a comrade through a plume of pipe smoke, or peels an orange, that you are seeing things done exactly as Che would have done them. He infuses the character with the considerable measure of his own charisma.
But the charisma is the whole of the performance. In honoring the myth of Che as a kind of macho Marxist superman in whom thought and feeling, action and theory, passion and discipline are united, Soderbergh and Del Toro (a producer of the picture as well as its star) remove him from the realm of human sympathy.
"Che" both studies and mirrors Guevara's two wars. With diagrammatic rigor, it lays out how one revolution succeeds -- by cultivating popular support, by marshaling a disciplined and growing contingent of troops -- and how another fails. It communicates a sense of difficulty and frustration, and also the kind of elation that comes from being absorbed in a heroic communal task.
This self-absorption -- the extent to which "Che" is a movie about itself -- saves it from becoming too dull and allows you, at least temporarily, to overlook its naive and fuzzy politics. But the film's formal sophistication is ultimately an evasion of the moral reckoning that Ernesto Guevara, more than 40 years and several million T-shirts after his death, surely deserves. Soderbergh once again offers a master class in filmmaking. As history, though, "Che" is finally not epic but romance. It takes great care to be true to the factual record, but it is, nonetheless, a fairy tale.