Before Shepard Fairey wheatpasted Obama’s portrait to walls, windows and the backs of those pushy midwesterners blocking your view of the jumbotron Tuesday afternoon, Alberto Korda‘s 1960 portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara was the most ubiquitous piece of hagiography to infiltrate the closets of American youth. Unlike Fairey’s Obama, however, the very mass re-production and clueless consumption of Che’s visage shows that 41 years postmortem, the man’s ideas are as forgotten as they are exalted.
Add to this two dimensional T-shirt portrait yet another flat depiction of the face of the Cuban revolution—Steven Soderbergh’s epic, two-part, 4-hour-and-23-minute biopic Che.
Soderbergh does get a few things right: the film is shot in Spanish, provides English subtitles and stars Benicio del Toro (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Soderbergh’s 2000 film Traffic) as the Argentine medical student-turned demonstrator-turned exile Ernesto Che Guevara. Casting is one of the few areas in which the film excels, but even that is limited by Peter Buchman’s (heretofore the brilliant mind behind dragon tales like Jurassic Park III and Eragon) and Benjamin A. van der Veen‘s script.
While sure to please the pants off history buffs for its stringent accuracy and adherence to Che’s memoir “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War,” fans of Che’s ideology will find gaffes and gaps of character development in the script. The film should have opened not with the 3-minute, ’50s-filmstrip geography lesson but with Ernesto in Argentina, a young middle class collegian participating in student protests, organizing against the government—the reason he meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City and gets involved in the whole Cuban thing (and the fire behind his desire to bring revolution to all of Latin America, a.ka. foregrounding all of Part 2). And none of Che’s post-Jan. 1, 1959 operations in Cuba make the cut. Soderbergh only alludes to the role Che plays in Cuba’s ailing economy in a series of poorly sown black and white flash-forwards to his UN visit. Including at the very least a montage of his hands-on approach to sugar cane cropping and government would have begun to flesh out and highlight the fundamental differences between Che and Fidel’s political ideology (del Toro’s insistence that his cadres learn to read and write during the revolution’s downtime manages to scratch the surface) and the real reason Che leaves for Africa and Bolivia—to escape his entrapment in Castro’s Cult of Personality.
What’s more, even in the midst of the Maestra, Che was a ladies man, as aware of his looks and charm as he was of his thin-mountain-air-addled asthma. A brief consult of one of the hundreds of biographies written about the man would have told Buchman that. But watching march after march, skirmish after skirmish, and toothless campesino after barefoot child as the revolutionary ants go marching on in Part 1(as for Part 2, it’s basically Part 1 but set in Bolivia, a dead horse whose flogging is truncated by the emotionally sterile treatment of Guevara’s 1967 execution), it seems as though the writers used an equation to crank out the script: 100 frames x 12 beseechments of troops to quit/study/leave campesinos alone ÷ 3 asthma attacks = 1 page of Che’s memoir sloppily slapped on paper for the silver screen. What happened to interviews with family members, Che’s infamous motorcycle diaries. What happened to multiple sources?
If Soderbergh et al wanted to make a film about guerilla warfare a la Che Guevara, they succeeded. To be sure, the battles are bloody and the film is beautiful—the tight, grainy, black and white auteur-shots of del Toro’s unshaven lips wrapped around a Cuban cigar were much appreciated. But to give the name “Che” to a film mostly about battle tactics is misleading; this war film has little to do with unpacking the character of the revolutionary whose egalitarian ideology was—at least to Che—bigger than life itself.
Now playing in D.C. at Landmark E Street Cinema, “Che” is set for wide release Jan. 24