- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

You might expect a film titled “Che” to tell us something about what made the Argentine doctor and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara tick - especially given a four-hour-and-17-minute running time. Director Steven Soderbergh offers instead an obsessive, painstakingly exact look into the mechanics of guerrilla warfare.

Mr. Guevara was at the center of two revolutions - one successful, one failed. Without any exploration of his inner life, though, “Che” comes off as a kind of advertisement for Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history - without the great man.

Starring Benicio Del Toro as the comandante, the film is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Argentine,” shows in excruciating detail the two-year guerrilla war that led, in 1959, to the ouster of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Part 2, “Guerrilla,” shows in excruciating detail the guerrilla war that led, in 1967, to Mr. Guevara’s capture and execution in Bolivia.

Contrasting these wars was the one wise move Mr. Soderbergh made. One made Mr. Guevara a star; the other killed him. We get some idea of what went wrong - a lack of popular support, a suspicion of godless foreigners and an additional opponent in the form of the CIA. The difference between the two is visceral. “The Argentine” contains the men’s drab green uniforms highlighted by the glorious greens of the country they’re fighting to liberate, while there’s no such bright spot in the Bolivian jungle.

We learn a lot about guerrilla warfare but little about the man who (literally) wrote the book on it. The film seems promising at first. The war story is interspersed with black-and-white scenes from Mr. Guevara’s 1964 visit to New York to address the United Nations. Snippets of news reports offer us a bit of background on the man who has become a symbol. “He’s been called the brains of the revolution,” one says.

That’s about as deep as it gets. Even after more than four hours, “Che,” the man of the title, isn’t much more than the image on that T-shirt dear to the hearts of undergraduates everywhere.

It seems the most important point the director wanted to make was that Mr. Guevara accomplished all he did while fighting terrible asthma attacks. There’s next to nothing on why he was so passionate about revolution that he would risk his life around the world - there also was a failed attempt in the Congo - to try sparking it. We never find out why he chose Bolivia. We don’t even know what that government in Bolivia was like - was Mr. Guevara’s cause a righteous one?

Conservative critics who might accuse this film of whitewashing a dictatorship miss the point. Within the first few minutes of the film, when Mr. Guevara visits New York, we see protesters screaming, “Get out of Cuba, Che! Murderer!” It’s clear the man is no saint. The problem is that we don’t see any of what went on in Cuba after the revolution, when Mr. Guevara’s friend Fidel Castro seized power. It makes the New York footage pointless. Why is he there, and what does he hope to accomplish? Why the strong feelings - either love or hate - for the man?

Mr. Del Toro won the best-actor prize at Cannes last year. Even without much opportunity, he manages to give us some idea of what must have been the man’s intense charisma. For what that charisma was used, we’ll have to wait for somebody else to show us.

★★

TITLE: “Che”

RATING: R (For violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen based on “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” and “The Bolivian Diary” by Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

RUNNING TIME: 257 minutes (and a 10-minute intermission)

WEB SITE: ifcfilms.com/viewFilm. htm?filmId=1236

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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