Che (2008) began as a personal project for actor Benicio del Toro around the time he was making Traffic (2000) with Steven Soderbergh. Originally, he planned on making the film about iconic revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara with Terrence Malick and its focus was to be on the disastrous Bolivian campaign in 1967. Malick eventually dropped out to go off and make The New World (2005). Soderbergh helped out Del Toro by agreeing to direct and in the process expanded the film’s scope by depicting Che’s role in the Cuban Revolution as a way of explaining his motivations for going to Bolivia.
Amazingly, Soderbergh raised the $58 million budget entirely outside of North America, which allowed him much more creative freedom. The result was a four-and-half-hour epic that refused to champion or demonize Che and instead opted to objectively depict his rise in Cuba and his fall in Bolivia. This approach ultimately doomed Che’s chances in North America where, despite breaking the film up into two, more digestible parts, it received limited distribution. Predictably, it divided critics and was criminally ignored by all of the major award ceremonies – rather fitting for a film about someone who refused to rest on his laurels, always hungry to get back to the jungle and get back to work.
I think that the key to understanding Del Toro and Soderbergh’s take on Che comes from an interview with director where he said, “Clearly this is a guy whose priority is going into the jungle and starting a revolution. That is the most important thing in his life … If you take away all the words and just look at what he did, the guy kept going back into the jungle.” Del Toro and Soderbergh were faced with the daunting task of making a film about an iconic historic figure, someone whose image has graced countless t-shirts and posters. Che is an extremely polarizing figure and so it makes sense that they would step back and take a more objective look at the man. Then, it would be up to the audience to decide how they felt about him.
Those looking for a crowd-pleasing underdog story a la Erin Brockovich (2000) will be disappointed by Che. The famous Argentinean is not as easy to like as the scrappy Brockovich. As depicted in Che, he’s a much more complex individual. He cares about the cause and those that fight with him but does not feel the need to show a lot of emotion. When he’s in the jungle it is all about the task at hand and living in the moment. Che never loses sight of what his objective is and his conviction never wavers, not even in the face of death. He’s like a Method actor that stays in character on and off-camera during a shoot.
Part One juxtaposes Che’s efforts to remove Batista from power in Cuba in 1958 with him addressing the United Nations in 1964 and in doing so we see Che in his element, putting into practice guerrilla warfare tactics, and we see Che the superstar espousing his beliefs to the media in New York City and the international community at large. At first, the Bolivia campaign as depicted in Part Two starts off well enough with Che sneaking into the country and meeting with his fellow revolutionaries. We see them get supplies and train in preparation for the task at hand. However, the country’s Communist party refuses to support an armed struggle, especially one led by a foreigner. The support of the peasants, so crucial in Cuba, is lacking in Bolivia, making food hard to come by. A feeling of dread creeps in as government troops gradually close in on Che, cutting off any avenue of escape.
Soderbergh maintains an objective stance by refusing to show any close-ups of Che. We always see him from a certain distance and often grouped with others. During the battle at El Uvero on May 28, 1957, Soderbergh conveys the noisy, chaotic nature of combat as men are seemingly wounded at random but there is never any confusion visually about what is going on. Twice during the battle, he takes us out of it by having a voiceover by Che where he espouses his philosophy of guerrilla warfare. With a widescreen aspect ratio, Soderbergh opens things up in Part One and this is particularly evident during the battle scenes. In Part Two, this all changes, as the smooth camerawork is replaced with hand-held cameras and a more standard aspect ratio which creates a claustrophobic feel and look. The long takes and deliberately slow pace may frustrate some expecting a more traditional biopic but I found it a welcome change from the cookie cutter mentality of most Hollywood depictions of history.
During the Cuban campaign it is evident that Che is very much a man of the people, whether it is making contact with and befriending peasants that he comes across in the jungle or treating a wounded comrade. However, Che eschews character development in favor of showing the nuts and bolts of a revolution. As Che says at one point, “A real revolutionary goes where he’s needed. It may not be directly in combat. Sometimes it’s about doing other tasks … finding food, dressing wounds, carrying comrades for miles … and then, taking care of them until they can take care of themselves.” The film takes this philosophy to heart by showing the day-to-day activities of Che and his fellow revolutionaries. We see him dressing wounds, the wounded being carried through the jungle and strategizing with his men and Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir).
Benicio del Toro effortlessly becomes Che and tones down his tendency to sometimes resort to Brando-esque acting tics (see The Way of the Gun) and plays the iconic revolutionary as a man confident of his own convictions. He conveys Che’s sharp intellect with his eyes and also does an excellent job with the physical aspects like his recurring asthma that constantly plagued him. Del Toro provides us insight into the man’s character through attitude, behavior and the way he acts towards others.
Che is ultimately a study in contrasts. What worked in Cuba did not work in Bolivia. Soderbergh’s film illustrates the differences. In Cuba, the revolutionaries were able to get the trust and support of the peasants while in Bolivia they feared the rebels. It must also be said that Castro played a key role in the success of the Cuban revolution and his absence in Bolivia, the galvanizing effect he had, is sorely missed. With Che, Soderbergh has created an unusual biopic that does its best to not try and manipulate you into feeling one way or another about the revolutionary. Instead, it shows two very different examples of the man’s philosophies put into practice and how they played out – one a success and the other a failure. Che was a polarizing historical figure long before this film came along and will continue to be long afterwards.