Che: Part One

Benicio Del Toro Plays the man behind the T-shirts

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. January 2009, USA. Rated R: 126 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 3/22/2009)

People too lazy to read memoirs or biographies rejoice! Benicio Del Toro stars in and Steven Soderbergh directs Che: Part One, the first installment of a two-part biopic on the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Based on the guerrilla revolutionary’s book, Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, and intercut with documentary footage of Havana protests, the film tackles the wartime triumph and tribulations of the 20th century icon.

Part One’s narrative trajectory extends from the night Guevara met Fidel Castro in an urban loft in Mexico to his major victory in Las Villas—the last stop before attacking Batista’s forces in Havana. It also gives us a glimpse of a U.N. conference some years later, wherein Guevara argued for the legitimacy of the new Cuban government and singled out the United States as an imperialist oppressor to the less fortunate of the Western Hemisphere. Screenplay Writer Peter Buchman’s choice of bouncing between these three settings keeps the movie interesting by presenting all the history at once instead of following a straightforward, linear path. The 126-minute feature (Part Two lasts 131 minutes, for a grand total of four hours and 17 minutes combined) feels long and meandering at points, but never boring. Soderbergh keeps us guessing by differentiating the film stocks and shooting styles. The forest and mountain guerrilla scenes abound with wide views of lush landscapes. By contrast, he depicts the U.N. conference and Mexico meeting scenes in a raw black-and-white, shooting zoomed in with a hand-held camera to heighten the tension with extreme close-ups.

Che portrays the man adorning hipsters’ t-shirts as he was: not a saintly, flawless idealist or a raving psychopathic murderer, but a complex human being with many sides to him. He preached a message of education for the masses and love for humanity, but complicated that rhetoric with his brutal methods of attack. He despised the U.S. government, not the American people—but doesn’t a nation’s government reflect its constituency?

Che is a must-see for those seeking an evenhanded account of the doctor-turned-rebel.