Che Guevera has always been more of an ideal than an actual person. He's been the romanticized poster boy for many a wannabe revolutionary, and his face on T-shirts has become the universal symbol for proletarian, raging-against-the-machine rebellion. His mythos is way larger and more important than his biography, because his biographyas hammered home in Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-plus-hour filmis disappointingly mundane. If Soderbergh's goal in making this movie was to demystify Che Guevera and de-romanticize "revolution," he's succeeded winningly. But unfortunately the result is a film that is just not very compelling.
For a film of such length and epic proportions, Che is actually very specific and limited in its narrative scope. Part 1 (The Argentine) follows Che in Cuba, as he partners with a young Fidel Castro to mount an agrarian revolution by gradually winning the hearts and minds of everyday Cubans who are dissatisfied with their government. Interspersed in this narrativeto interesting effectare some black-and-white scenes of Che in Manhattan during his 1964 trip to speak to the U.N. General Assembly. By the end of Part 1, he and the rebels have successfully overthrown Batista's current regime in Cuba, though we are not granted the luxury of actually seeing the march into Havana. Just as we are finally getting a bit of pay-off for meticulously observing the banal everydayness of revolution for the two-plus hours that comprise Part 1, Part 2 (The Guerilla) takes us out of Cuba and to Bolivia, where Che (after a failed attempt in Congo) tries to duplicate his Cuban revolutionary success in another Latin American nation. Unfortunately the revolutionary fervor among the lower classes and oppressed people groups in Bolivia is not as strong as Che had hoped, and the revolution fizzles before it begins.
That is about the extent of what happens in the film. It's chock full of busy bodies, meetings, firefights, bombs, walking through jungles and mountains, tending to injuries, smoking cigars, mumbling in Spanish, arguing and conspiring about this, that, and the other. These sorts of things are fascinating in small doses, but tiresome when it is all there is for more than four hours. I'm all for films that focus audience attention on the mundane realities of things, but Che takes it all a little too far.
For a film with a title like Che, the expectation is that we will get to know the title character and get to know him well. Not in the least. Soderbergh's apparent commitment to raw, ground-level realism, combined with a well-intentioned (but ultimately ill-advised) ideological fidelity to Che's egalitarian socialist principles (which precludes, among other things, too many close-ups of Che) leaves very little room for character development in the traditional sense. Audiences are given very little understanding of who Che really is, and why they should care to watch him for better than one-sixth of a full day. He remains as distant at the end of the film as he is at the beginning: still just a name that has vague associations with rebellion and revolution. Benicio del Toro does his best with the material (and his best is very good), but it's painful to sit through a such a long performance that is so ingratiatingly constrained by the filmmakers' indulgent, self-imposed narrative peculiarities.