29 September 2008 | Chris Knipp
Guerrilla struggles that work, and don't
Ironically the most talked-about American film in the 2008 New York Film Festival is 98% in Spanish. The extra-long film's controversy began at the Cannes Festival. There were love-hate notices, and considerable doubts about commercial prospects. As consolation the star, Benicio Del Toro, got the Best Actor award there. I'm talking about Steven Soderbergh's 'Che,' of course. That's the name it's going by in this version, shown in New York as at Cannes in two 2-hour-plus segments without opening title or end credits. 'Che' is certainly appropriate since Ernesto "Che" Guevara is in almost every scene. Del Toro is impressive, hanging in reliably through thick and thin, from days of glorious victory in part one to months of humiliating defeat in part two, appealing and simpatico in all his varied manifestations, even disguised as a bald graying man to sneak into Bolivia. It's a terrific performance; one wishes it had a better setting.
If you are patient enough to sit through the over four hours, with an intermission between the two sections, there are rewards. There's an authentic feel throughout--fortunately Soderbergh made the decision to film in Spanish (though some of the actors, oddly enough in the English segments especially, are wooden). You get a good outline of what guerrilla warfare, Che style, was like: the teaching, the recruitment of campesinos, the morality, the discipline, the hardship, and the fighting--as well as Che's gradual morphing from company doctor to full-fledged military leader. Use of a new 9-pound 35 mm-quality RED "digital high performance cine camera" that just became available in time for filming enabled DP Peter Andrews and his crew to produce images that are a bit cold, but at times still sing, and are always sharp and smooth.
The film is in two parts--Soderbergh is calling them two "films," and the plan is to release them commercially as such. First is 'The Argentine,' depicting Che's leadership in jungle and town fighting that led up to the fall of Havana in the late 50's, and the second is 'Guerrilla,' and concerns Che's failed effort nearly a decade later in Bolivia to spearhead a revolution, a fruitful mission that led to Guevara's capture and execution in 1967. The second part was to have been the original film and was written first and, I think, shot first. Producer Laura Bickford says that part two is more of a thriller, while part one is more of an action film with big battle scenes. Yes, but both parts have a lot in common--too much--since both spend a large part of their time following the guerrillas through rough country. Guerrilla an unmitigated downer since the Bolivian revolt was doomed from the start. The group of Cubans who tried to lead it didn't get a friendly reception from the Bolivian campesinos, who suspected foreigners, and thought of the Cuban communists as godless rapists. There is a third part, a kind of celebratory black and white interval made up of Che's speech at the United Nations in 1964 and interviews with him at that time, but that is inter-cut in the first segment. The first part also has Fidel and is considerably more upbeat, leading as it does to the victory in Santa Clara in 1959 that led to the fall of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.
During 'Guerilla' I kept thinking how this could indeed work as a quality European-style miniseries, which might begin with a shortened version of Walter Salles's 'Motorcycle Diaries' and go on to take us to Guevara's fateful meeting with Fidel in Mexico and enlistment in the 26th of July Movement. There could be much more about his extensive travels and diplomatic missions. This is far from a complete picture of the man, his childhood interest in chess, his lifelong interest in poetry, the books he wrote; even his international fame is only touched on. And what about his harsh, cruel side? Really what Soderbergh is most interested in isn't Che, but revolution, and guerrilla warfare. The lasting impression that the 4+ hours leave is of slogging through woods and jungle with wounded and sick men and women and idealistic dedication to a the cause of ending the tyranny of the rich. Someone mentioned being reminded of Terrence Malick's 'The Tin Red Line,' and yes, the meandering, episodic battle approach is similar; but 'The Thin Red Line' has stronger characters (hardly anybody emerges forcefully besides Che), and it's a really good film. This is an impressive, but unfinished and ill-fated, effort.
This 8-years-gestating, heavily researched labor of love (how many more Ocean's must come to pay for it?) is a vanity project, too long for a regular theatrical release and too short for a miniseries. Radical editing--or major expansion--would have made it into something more successful, and as it is it's a long slog, especially in the second half.
It's clear that this slogging could have been trimmed down, though it's not so clear what form the resulting film would have taken--but with a little bit of luck it might have been quite a good one.