Toronto: Surviving Soderbergh's 262 Minute Che Double Feature
by Alex Billington
September 12, 2008
Long live the revolution! I recently walked out of a nearly five hour screening session consisting of back-to-back showings of Steven Soderbergh's two films on Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara. It was a grueling experience but one that I'm happy to have gone through - merely because having the chance these two impressive films back-to-back in theaters was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity anyway. Instead of a typical review, however, I just want to put down my thoughts, because there was so much going through my head as I watched all 262 minutes of Che and I just want to mention as much as I can. The two films are a meticulously intimate portrait of Guevara that covers three of his most memorable events in his life - the Cuban revolution in 1956, his trip to the United Nations, and his last revolutionary fight in Bolivia.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Guevara is answering a question from a reporter in New York City about aspects of guerrilla fighters. He tells her that love is one of the most important aspects and goes on to explain that it's love of their country and love for the people in the country that drives their passion for fighting. It wasn't until part way through the second film that I realized that is exactly what these two films were all about. I finally realized why he's such an iconic political legend and why shirts with his face printed on it are worn by teens all around the world. It's about his passion and undying patriotism and fight to rid injustice that people attach to the most, not his Marxist views or opposition to democracy. If anything, Che does a remarkable job of putting Guevara's political importance into perspective.
Both films really succeed at idolizing the real Che Guevara, courtesy of an incredible performance by Benicio Del Toro, but leaves an opinion on him and his views up to the viewer, like most well-made biopics. In the first film, The Argentine, the cuts between Che's speech at the United Nations in New York City and his fight up through Cuba with Fidel Castro actually worked well, but the story as it played out in the film did not. However, the troubles with this don't lie in the production itself, which on a whole is a phenomenal achievement for both Soderbergh and Del Toro, but rather in Soderbergh's resistance to editing and the lengthy overall story. Even I didn't fully grasp the depth of the revolution at the end of the first film, which is remarkable considering Soderbergh packed in quite a bit in that first 131 minutes.
The second film, Guerrilla, is a somewhat less energetic and less entertaining story on Guevara's attempts to start a revolution in Bolivia under Fidel Castro's orders. This film takes everything that was outlined in the first film, from Guevara's commentary on guerrilla fighters in the interview, to his battles with a contingent of guerrillas in the jungle of Cuba, and implements them in a piece that explores the life of resistance fighters and the horrors they go through in order to hopefully cause a revolution. It doesn't have the same glossy attraction like The Argentine and I kept thinking that these two films are better sold separately. As long as IFC sticks to the rumored plan to release the first film, The Argentine, in theaters this fall, it'll gain plenty of Oscar buzz and give the second one a extra boost before its release later in 2009.
I understand that Soderbergh wants to tell Guevara's very intriguing life story and I can see how he's struggling to edit this because there's so much to tell. Leaving any of it out would be a disservice to Guevara's integrity and I think it's important to keep all of the scenes that define the character so very well. In watching this, I've realized how much of a challenge it is for Soderbergh to juggle this balance and the length and everything. Therefore I really don't have much criticism, or at least don't feel like I should say too much, because both films are undoubtedly very well-made, but they're not exactly films that I'm going to ever call personal favorites or instant classics. I really love Steven Soderbergh and found so much to appreciate in both The Argentine and Guerrilla, even if I didn't love either of them in the end.
After recapping my thoughts, I'll admit that Che is one of those cinematic experiences worth going through once. They're both great films, there's no question about that, I'm just unsure if I'll ever find myself watching either of them again unless I find myself in a Latin America history class. I'm wondering if any other moviegoers out there have had similar thoughts after watching Che or either of the two individual films? And I'm wondering what the mainstream will reaction will be when both of these hit theaters?