This definitely qualifies as one of the stranger reviewing experiences of my life, since I’m essentially reviewing half a movie. The entire film—an unwieldy four-plus-hour affair—is only seen when both halves are put together, and that won’t happen till next week. I’m not complaining. At least I’ll get paid for two reviews. I sat through the entire miserable 231 minutes of Gods and Generals in one sitting, and while it was two-bouts worth of cinematic torture, it only managed one review and one fee. It helps that Che Part One is anything but miserable or torture. In fact, it’s probably the best film of its kind since Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), which was a scant 194 minutes and had an intermission (the last film to officially do so). In fact, you might think of Che Part One as watching Reds through “The Internationale” sequence and saving the next part till next week.
While Steven Soderbergh—a man who refuses to develop an identifiable style—is an uneven director (perhaps because he refuses to develop an identifiable style), he’s a brilliant craftsman when he’s at the top of his game. Here he’s very much at the top of his game, managing to create a film that is both epic (truly epic, not what so often passes for it today) and intimate. Though there are big scenes in the film, Soderbergh never loses sight of the concept of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) the man.
Yet, this isn’t a biopic in the strict sense. We’re given no background (perhaps the film assumes we saw Walter Salles’ 2004 film on Che’s early life, The Motorcycle Diaries) and are expected to pick up information on the run. The effect is startlingly refreshing—as if we’re suddenly on the periphery of the events, listening in on Che and Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir, TV’s Weeds) as they plot each step for the overthrow of Cuba and then act. Keeping a balance—and feeding information and historical perspective—the film is interspersed with black-and-white scenes of Che’s visit to New York City, his speech to the U.N., interviews and some frankly charming backstage scenes in the mid-1960s. Miraculously, this blends together to form a surprisingly unified whole.
That this works is due in no small part to Benicio Del Toro’s (who also co-produced the film) portrayal of Che. Del Toro often strikes me as a somewhat overrated actor, but here he’s perfection. We see an actor imbue a character with life, a character that’s only sketched in by the screenplay. While the film chronicles the events surrounding Che, Del Toro and Soderbergh portray the man as something more than just an animated version of the image that festoons the T-shirts of thousands of armchair revolutionaries. (Ironically, there’s a paid ad on Rotten Tomatoes’ search page for Che that promises more than 250 Che shirts, knickknacks and ephemera. I doubt Señor Guevara would approve.)
Che Part One basically chronicles—not counting the flash forwards to the 1960s—the events from Che’s original meeting with Fidel Castro (which finds each of them convinced that the other is at least a little crazy) up to the point where they have taken Santa Clara (the decisive battle) and are about to enter Havana itself. The approach of breaking the film here is both reasonable and oddly satisfying. While I was left with a desire to see where the next two hours will go, I liked the placement of the ending of Part One, since it shrewdly—and in an unforced, even mildly humorous manner—restates the idealistic principles of its subject.
If there is a single problem with the film—at least with this half of the film—it lies in the unsurprising tendency to romanticize Che. While he’s depicted as fully capable of ruthlessness when it’s necessary, there’s never a hint of anything even mildly reprehensible. Soderbergh appears to think he’s offering a portrait of the man that takes no side, but it doesn’t play out that way. It can be argued that—and perhaps it should be—it isn’t the place of this particular film to show his later excesses. But as it stands with Part One, the film gets dangerously close to hero worship, despite attempts not to. While not enough to seriously harm the film, it should be kept in mind that this isn’t the whole picture. Whether or not a balance is achieved in Part Two remains to be seen. Not rated, but contains violence and language.