The figure of Che Guevara, like Hitler and Stalin before him, comes with such an overwhelming amount of intellectual and ideological baggage that it seems ridiculous that anyone, especially Steven Soderbergh, would attempt to make a definitive biopic. Political films of the last ten years, whether the highly cerebral and fascinating Downfall or the more tongue-in-cheek and popcorn Enemy at the Gates, achieve their credibility with regard to key historical figures by limiting themselves to a key series of events in their life, which form a microcosm. Successful films like this know too well that a definitive portrayal is impossible to capture in two hours, and merely making this biopic a two-parter is not enough to salvage it.
Soderbergh?s Che: Part One, which focuses on Che?s life and career in and around the Cuban Revolution, has a number of very series of problems which threaten to scupper it throughout. The first of these problems, without question, is the script. On the one hand, the dialogue is tired and formulaic, consisting of the same exchanges between Che and Fidel Castro repeated ad nauseum. These exchanges, which largely consist of Fidel giving an order and Che executing it, are eerily reminiscent of The Godfather. Fidel?s raspy voice and spooky manner reminds you of Marlon Brando?s Don Corleone (only not as good), and you could pretty much replace his orders with the words: ?I want you to do this, it?s for the good of the family?.
These dull exchanges prevent the film from being any kind of sympathetic ideological portrait. On the other hand, the constant reliance in the script on slogans and war cries (in between the Godfather scenes) means that the exchanges between the characters, even in a war zone, never seem objective or believable. This is a film which neither has the courage to be a deliberately rose-tinted portrait, or an objective and realistic documentary, designed to show the ?real? story of the Cuban Revolution.
The second major problem with this film is Soderbergh?s direction. Not only does the poor script undermine his efforts to create dramatic tension, but the film is annoyingly episodic in its structure. It jumps unnecessarily back and forth between the Revolution and Che?s speech at the UN, offering little in the way of events or controversies to connect them. Watching these sections of film is akin to watching a badly put together documentary, inter-cutting stock footage of war with an historian trying to explain what happened. Soderbergh shoots the UN scenes in black-and-white with no visible explanation beyond to distinguish between past and present, and if that is the case, then he is simply being lazy.
The third and final problem is the resulting lack of political engagement. On the one hand, the lack of either inspiring or interesting dialogue makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the audience to connect politically with the Revolution. On the other hand, the jumpy and uncertain direction shortens the amount of solid political messaging which can be made. The film is too busy jumping from place to place to stop and focus on the message of the Revolution and its implications, assuming that the audience have either already read Che?s diaries (on which the film is based) or are unquestioning enough to accept everything.
The only real saving grace of this film is Benicio Del Toro in the title role. From the second he first appears on the screen, you are completely convinced that he is Ernesto ?Che? Guevara (the nickname, incidentally, is never explained). Del Toro walks, talks and thinks into the role, leaving nothing in the way of illusion or pretence, just as Frank Langella did in Frost/Nixon. It's a great performance, once of the most immersive in modern cinema; sadly, the rest of Che: Part One cannot live up to such an adjective. Both the script and Soderbergh's direction are uninspiring and completely unsure of themselves. They are stuck in a no-mans?-land between the alleged objectivity of documentaries and the rose-tinted subjectivity of biopics, and as a result it?s just a dull means of preaching to the converted.