Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” is by no means a perfect film, but in a season laden with dopey historical movies like “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “The Reader,” it’s exhilarating to watch a film that doesn’t hit all the usual biopic script beats.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Benicio del Toro) doesn’t sit by a campfire and tell children about the worker’s revolution; there’s no scene where Guevara’s wife clutches his sleeve and begs him not to go to Bolivia; Alberto Iglesias’ score never swells up so we know we’re supposed to be moved. Soderbergh and screenwriters Peter Buchman and Benjamin van der Veen instead trust us to pay attention and make up our own minds about what we’re seeing.
In telling Guevara’s story, Soderbergh has opted to simply allow events to unfold without applying editorial comment; in his book “Getting Away With It,” Soderbergh talks about directors who stand between the audience and the screen, waving their arms around, and the filmmaker certainly isn’t doing that here. In fact, if there’s a flaw to “Che,” it’s that the film occasionally meanders in its quest for unadorned storytelling.
“Che” is actually two movies that will be screened as one long “roadshow” film, complete with intermission, for awards consideration in New York and Los Angeles before being released as two separate titles early next year. Both halves of the film were adapted from Guevara’s diaries: “The Argentine,” which covers the birth of the July 26 movement and the eventual overthrow of Cuba’s Batista government, comes out of Guevara’s “Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War,” while “Guerrilla,” covering his unsuccessful Bolivian coup attempt, is adapted from “Bolivian Diary.”
And like a diary, “Che” is more about a succession of events than grand Hollywood commentary upon them. Both admirers and detractors of Guevara will find much in the film to challenge and to support their opinions; you won’t find blindly passionate sloganeering here.
“The Argentine” is framed by Guevara’s visit to the United Nations in the mid-1960s; in speaking with an interviewer (Julia Ormond) about his life, we see him meet Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) for the first time in Mexico and the day-to-day struggles as he leads a revolutionary army across the island of Cuba. (Soderbergh doesn’t give us dates and locations; he merely opens each film with a map showing locations of interest and then expects us to remember that map when those areas are cited in the dialogue.)
“Guerrilla” is somewhat harder to watch, since we know that, unlike “The Argentine,” things aren’t going to end well for Guevara. His jungle travails are similar to his Cuban experiences, but we see how the U.S.-backed Bolivian government did a better job than Batista at keeping the peasant population from supporting the guerrillas. What’s also distracting about the second film are the appearances by the likes of Matt Damon and Lou Diamond Phillips, whose faces are familiar enough to jolt us out of the documentary feel that Soderbergh is attempting.
Greatly aiding Soderbergh’s push toward naturalism is Del Toro, who avoids movie-star showboating while nonetheless remaining utterly compelling. “Che” is by no means a breezy sit, but no matter what your politics, it’s a bracing tonic in a season of flaccid Oscar bait.