Steven Soderbergh’s Che could use a Che of its own - a leader who’ll tell you straight, “Look, I know this won’t be easy on your butt. A four-hour biopic hinged on the practice, philosophy, strategy and impact of revolution. But some craziness is good in filmmaking, right? Just get out there…”
Audiences at least get a seat and a chance to take the watch in two installments. Part One is released this month, Part Two comes in February – and both are worth your time.
What kind of revolution are we talking about, though? Well, mentions of Guantánamo and American intervention in the name of protecting freedom can’t help but resonate with recent US foreign policy.
But Che is a closer match to Steve McQueen’s scrupulous study of Bobby Sands in Hunger, in the sense that it scrutinises an iconic, opinion-dividing figure and dares to take him seriously as a man and a thinker.
But if you’re expecting the Citizen Kane of revolutionary biopics, look away. Che prioritises nuts’n’bolts specifics over flash’n’dazzle filmmaking. It aims to humanise a man known to many people as a poster or a t-shirt worn by silly folk in their first year at university.
Instead it explores Che as a doctor, a great speaker, a writer, a political theorist, a fighter and a strategist. Big boots to step into? Sure. Hell, the film’s first shot is of a big pair of boots. Then a big cigar, a curve of cheek… Che unpacked in iconic pieces.
That’s just the hook: from here, Soderbergh articulates the struggles and situations that shaped the icon. Boots this big, of course, require big feet to fill them. Most of us first noticed Benicio Del Toro as a great mumbler in The Usual Suspects.
Since then, Del Toro has graduated from invigorating ensemble player to commanding lead. And, at that, a lead who isn’t always checking his close-up; instead, we see him marshalling leading-man muscle next to team-player tact.
It’s an extraordinary performance in the degree to which it doesn’t flaunt itself as extraordinary, aptly so for a man who was at once leader and participant in history. And his co-revolutionaries excel too: for starters, Demián Bichir is an uncanny Fidel Castro.
Che is something new for Soderbergh as well. It’s no Ocean’s Eleven romp, no Full Frontal folly, no inspirationaltale like Erin Brockovich, no Oscar-gobbling, smash’n’grab Traffic.
It’s a biopic, but not in the conventional sense: Soderbergh favours a focus on specific chapters over a life’s arc, meticulously accreting details that demand and repay audience attention.
We first see Ernesto Che Guevara all over the shop: meeting Fidel Castro, speaking at the United Nations and being interviewed in ’64. Different styles are deployed to orient elisions in time and space, from lush widescreen to newsreel black-and-white.
There’s no flab here, just revelation and focus: if you’re plotting an overthrow, you could do worse than take notes on the day-to-day demands detailed. Dealing with people, finding shelter, prepping guns (a bugger to clean, it seems), looking after the injured… anyone would think it’s a full-time job.
But, as Che argues, men with the desire to fight who, at the same time, also understand why they are fighting are a powerful force. Finally, the work pays off for both Che and audience: the rigorously orchestrated taking of Santa Clara in ’59 grips and terrifies like a great war movie.
Flaws? Maybe, but they largely just exist in what isn’t shown. Che’s family and personal life barely get a look-in. We don’t see what happens after Che and Castro take over Cuba, either: one imagines that watching Che carry out Castro’s prosecutions would have complicated his
But as a film by Hollywood big shots that dares to take political themes seriously, trusts in audience commitment and sticks firmly to the job in hand, Che is hearty and heartening. A revolution in cinema?
Will you want to go out and change the world afterwards, like Sean Penn reckoned his Cannes ’08 jury did? Well, perhaps not. But big, prawling
movies this keen are rare. Use it, don’t lose it – and make sure you save room for Part Two.