Friday, March 6, 2009

Review: "Che"

There are many things I could have expected from a movie about Ernesto "Che" Guevara. It could have been exhilarating, a portrait of a heroic revolutionary figure who has become an icon all over the world more than 40 years after his death. It could have been exasperating, a non-critical whitewash of a man personally responsible for dozens of murders and an avowed Marxist enemy of the U.S. It could have been some mix of these, showing the light and dark in the man, the contradictions and hypocrisy. It could have been about how his name became legend, the way history and hype get twisted together.

What I could have never expected from "Che" is what it is: Boring.

I mean really, really boring. Stultifyingly dull. Get-up-and-walk-out boring. Truly, deeply uninteresting.

Director Steven Soderbergh and his co-screenwriter Peter Buchman have made a movie -- actually, two movies -- about the life of Che that diminish Guevara to a field commander in a never-ending jungle rebellion. Benicio Del Toro makes a valiant attempt to breathe life into the controversial historical figure. But instead of showing the ideas that illuminated Che's successful revolution in Cuba with Fidel Castro, and his failed one in Bolivia, we get the minutia.

"Che Part One" and "Part Two" clock in at over two hours each, the first tracking the Cuban uprising and the second the Bolivian one. But it's not about the passion, but the tiny details of running a revolution. Most of the movie consists of Che and the gang hunkered down in the village, running from government soldiers, finding food, occasionally fighting a chaotic gun battle.

I must have lost count of the number of times the rebels go into some village and talk to the peasants, buy some food from them, and give them a little free health care. (Che famously was a physician before he became a revolutionary.) Or how many times two groups of rebels meet in the jungle, and they go around hugging each other. They even hug each other the same way: Arms around the shoulders, three pats on the back. Scenes will go on for several minutes like this, Soderbergh apparently feeling it necessary to show every single greeting between comrades. Hug, pat pat pat; hug, pat pat pat; hug, pat pat pat.

The tone is set by the opening minutes of each film. Soderbergh shows us a map of the country where the story is set (Cuba, then Bolivia) and then slowly, excrutiatingly, illuminates the major cities, the names of the provinces, and so forth. This goes on and on. And on. Several minutes of screen time, sitting there playing like a grade-school geography film strip.

All I can say is: Where was the editor?

At what point does an editor tell his director that nobody wants to watch this stuff? That, "Hey, I know you spent weeks in the jungle getting some of this footage, but it drags the movie down, you've got to cut it out?" It never happened here, and we're left with this 255-minute abomination.

Part one is certainly better than Part Two, since the action is interspersed with some scenes of Che's visit to New York in the early 1960s to speak to the United Nations. At least here we get to see some of the philosophy behind the guerrilla.

I've talked to a few other local critics about the movie, and several of them feel like there's a good 2.5- to 3-hour version of "Che" inside the bloated mess. But I disagree. Soderbergh and the gang failed when they set forth to film the process rather than the passion of being a revolutionary. The fact that they did it uncritically only adds to the mess. Since they based their material on Che's own writings, we never see any of the nasty stuff Che did. For example, the movie Che keeps telling his disillusioned men they can leave anytime they want, but he was known to shoot defectors on a frequent basis, often personally.

I could have taken a version of "Che" that unfairly elevated its subject, but not one that dragged him down and turned him into a pedantic bore.

1.5 stars out of four.

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