1. For all the talk about how Milk is an unconventional biopic, Che is a truly audacious one. Rather than put Che’s sprawling life into any sort of context, Steven Soderbergh instead focuses solely on two battles. The first half of the movie looks at his success in the Cuban revolution, with the second about his failure in Bolivia. This is not a biography; this is a war procedural. Che is rarely seen in closeup; the majority of his scenes show him instructing large groups of anonymous soldiers. He doesn’t pause in the middle of a scene to Be Che Guevara. He is far too busy trying to win a war. This is a fascinating conceit. Imagine a biography of Abraham Lincoln that had only two setpieces: A Lincoln-Douglas debate, and that night at the Ford Theater. Any insight you get into Che is entirely in the context of what he happens to be doing at that moment.
2. This is clever, but also distancing. Other than interstitials in the first half of Che addressing the United Nations, you never get a sense that Che is a terribly important man outside of the battlefield. (And maybe he wasn’t, really.) Perhaps we have become so accustomed to the traditional biopic that we can’t handle something this different, but you never get a firm grasp on Guevara. He’s always fleeting, just out of frame, in charge but not encouraging his troops with some big inspiring speech. We don’t learn much about Che at all. About an hour-and-a-half into the movie, Che mentions, off-hand, that he has a wife and child back in Mexico. They have not been mentioned, or even alluded to, and it comes as a shock: This guy has a life outside of the battlefield? This is a stylistic decision that’s commendable — it sure does save us the typical dull “Honey, you have a life at home outside the revolution!” wife scenes, in a role I can only assume would be played by the Latino version of Sissy Spacek or Anne Archer — but still profoundly weird: Why make a movie about Che Guevara and tell us little to nothing about him?
3. This technique, however, is a fastball right down the plate for Benicio Del Toro, a strange actor who seems to enjoy working on the edges of his character than digging to the center. Since Del Toro doesn’t have much of a character to play, he gets to indulge all his nifty little Actor tricks, like coughing randomly or scratching his nose affectedly in the middle of dialogue. Del Toro, as an actor, likes to fidget and send you quiet signals about his character’s interior life, hoping you’ll catch obscure clues that one suspects only he understands. So, man, is Del Toro ever twitchy in this movie. One senses that Del Toro takes his craft so seriously that he instinctively fights off any Movie Moments that might, you know, actually provide the audience any real insight into his character. That would be cheating. He’s fun to watch, as always, but it’s schtick in a vacuum: This Che is fundamentally void.
4. I was fortunate enough to see this in one 4 1/2 hour block (with a half hour intermission). Most moviegoers will not have this experience; when it’s released in January, it’ll be split into two halves. The Argentine covers the Cuban revolution, and Guerrilla is about Bolivia. I think the first film works better, because it has a clear beginning, middle and end; Che meets Castro, Che fights for Cuba, Che wins Cuba. The second half, by nature, is about confusion and inefficiency: Everything that worked for Che in Cuba fails him in Bolivia, mostly because of forces out of his control. (By Bolivia, Che is so world famous that his mere presence complicates the mission.) This makes the second half a bit of dirge, as we see plans collapse, morale implode and Che deteriorate physically. After a while, the lack of organization of Che’s Bolivian troops transfers to the audience: Che and the troops don’t know what’s going on, and neither do we. It doesn’t help that the second half features two egregrious “celebrity” cameos that rip us right out of the flow of the film. When you watch three-plus hours of Benicio Del Toro surrounded by anonymous and interchangable Latino actors, it’s a bit disorienting when Matt Damon shows up, speaking Spanish with a German accent. (I think that’s what that was, anyway.)
5. I think Soderbergh got too caught up in his own head in this movie. Once he established his framing device, as clever and original as it is, he dug so far deep into it that he never found his way out. When you’ve decided that you’re essentially making an anti-biopic, you’re restricted in what you can do at that point. If you’re not going to give the audience anything to hang onto, at four-plus hours, you’re pushing their patience to a point that’s unreasonable to expect anyone to withstand. This is an admirable academic exercise, a massive film that’s not really about anything but its own existence. It’s a cold film that asks you to appreciate its unwillingness to entertain in any conventional sense. You have to admire that. You have to respect that. But man, you shouldn’t be expected to have to watch it.