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Just before Ernesto Guevara leads his troops victoriously into Havana at the end of Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part One, his fellow commandante Camilo Cienfuegos jokes that once their fight is over, he’s going to stuff Che in a cage and charge admission to lesser beings for the chance to bask in his greatness. Back in 2004, Walter Salles tapped Gael Garcia Bernal to portray Guevara as a handsome, wise-beyond-his-years medical student in The Motorcycle Diaries. And of course, by the time both of these films were made, Che had already been turned into an icon, his visage adorning T-shirts worn by kids for whom revolution likely means ditching morning lit class.
So is there still enough strange love for Guevara to warrant Soderbergh’s four-hour-plus biopic? Only time and the box office will tell. Already released in New York and Los Angeles at the end of 2008 for Academy Award consideration, Che is now opening in nine other markets, including Washington, in its roadshow format: Parts One and Two, though produced as discrete films, will be shown together with an intermission, commercial- and trailer-free. (You also get a program!) But despite the director’s apparent earnestness, the epic project seems destined to fade quickly, à la Bubble, into the “Soderberghian novelty” chapter of cinematic history.
Like Bubble (whose doomed quirk was its day-and-date release), Che suffers not because it’s an altogether bad movie—just an unnecessarily bloated one. If The Curious Case of Benjamin Button can find fans with its nearly three-hour running time, Che: Part One, the film’s far superior, 134-minute half, could have easily been edited to include Guevara’s downfall and death (the subject of Part Two) alongside his impressive rise. Benicio Del Toro is this incarnation’s pretty face—though his scruffy good looks are a much closer resemblance to the Argentine leader than Bernal’s—and in Part One, we see him at crucial points in his career, from his first meeting Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) at a dinner party in Mexico in 1955 to his dismantling of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime in 1959 to his U.N. address in 1964, when his New York visit provoked as much fawning as protest.
Curiously, Soderbergh decided to film the New York scenes in black and white, while giving full color to the flashed-back guts of Guevara’s snowballing power during his and Castro’s revolution. In the opening minutes, the time-jumping is frenetic and a bit dizzying, but once Soderbergh settles into a less whiplash-inducing rhythm, the contrasts contribute as significantly to the film’s dynamism as the charismatic presence of Del Toro. Really, Guevara was a role tailored for the actor, and even as he admits in his U.N. speech to executing dissidents, he’s such a commanding personality that you imagine there must have been a valid reason for it.
Though both chapters portray Guevara sympathetically, Part One (written by Peter Buchman, whose somewhat embarrassing credits include Eragon and Jurassic Park III) lets viewers who don’t have a clue about the viciousness of the man fall for the myth of his character. Guevara could be stern with his troops but always seemed fair, his wrath falling most scathingly (and, yes, sometimes fatally) on rogue soldiers who abused their power by lying, stealing, or torturing peasants in the name of the movement. He tended to the sick and taught the illiterate to read and write. And the movement itself, of course, was rooted in the positive tenets of communism, here more often called “agrarian reform”: Guevara would appeal to villagers by telling them he was fighting to get better schools for their children, hospitals close enough to be of real use, and food and wealth for everyone. He wasn’t a tyrant, goes this narrative: He was a savior.
The factors that energize Part One are notably missing in Part Two, however—not only are the flashbacks gone, but Del Toro himself is a lesser presence as the film picks up in 1966, when Guevara went undercover to foment a revolution in Bolivia. Freshman scripter Benjamin van der Veen joined Buchman to flesh out this linear, relentlessly downward arc, but its 135 minutes can pretty much be summed up thus: Che gives himself a bald spot and false teeth, says goodbye to his wife, Aleida (Catalina Sandrino Moreno, more significantly seen in Part One) and kids, and buries himself in the Bolivian woods, assembling a new army under the alias “Ramon.” Their battles are nearly consistently—and boringly—futile, with villagers sabotaging their strategies and Guevara’s asthma slowing him down.
There are a few more of Part One’s humanizing scenes here as Guevara gently explains his troops’ presence to peasants. But mostly it’s two-plus hours of shooting, explosions, deaths, and more shooting, until Guevara is captured. The most interesting moment in Part Two, in fact, is Matt Damon’s WTF? cameo as a Spanish-speaking priest, which distracts you from the tedium as you squint to figure out if that is indeed he. And when Damon steals a historical icon’s show, it’s a clue that you’ve overstayed your welcome.