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By Don R. Lewis | November 10, 2008

Before getting underway with this review of Steven Soderbergh’s epic “Che,” I should alert readers to two things. First off, this is a review of both “Che” movies which will be released later in theaters as two separate films. The first one will be entitled “The Argentine,” the second one entitled “Guerrilla.”

The second warning is a more personal one. I know next to nothing about world history and politics. I’m not really ashamed to admit it, but when I see movies like this or something like Errol Morris’s “Fog of War,” I spend a lot of time feeling lost, confused and playing catch-up in my mind. Guess I should have paid attention in high school rather than scripting the further adventure of Han and Chewie in class. So with that out of the way, lets get down to “Che,” the four and 1/2 hour epic from Steven Soderbergh.

The film starts off with Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s early days in Mexico where he meets up with Fidel Castro and they hatch a plan of revolution. They head to Cuba and plot their overthrow of the government. The early days and early part of “Che” reminded me of classic war films. Guevara slowly builds a dedicated rag-tag group of guerrilla soldiers and they train and bond over shared values and guns. Inter-spliced with these scenes are ones of Che being interviewed by the press (post-revolution) on his philosophies as well as some terrific scenes of him speaking to the United Nations. Since I’m historically ignorant, these scenes helped me to understand what he was all about politically, but I was still kind of politically confused. I also had no real clue as to who Che Guevara was as a person and that problem sticks throughout the entire film. Then the boom-boom started.

Che marches his guerrillas through Cuba amassing an ever-growing army and winning each tenuous battle. Throughout each stop, Che never wavers on his Marxist and socialist philosophies and his men and women are ever fair, always polite and willing to share what they have. His guerrillas are clever, tough and dedicated and this is the part of the movie that’s going to rub some folks the wrong way.

I don’t know enough about Che but I do know he is viewed by many as a murderer and a bastard. While this may be true, it seems to me that serious revolutions get a tad bit messy and death is par for the course. But here, we never really see Che or his guerrillas as anything less than passionate about their cause and, then, victorious. Thus Che’s posse comes off as heroic and, as usual, heroism is in the eye of the beholder. If you don’t like Che and what he stood for, the first half of “Che” will really tick you off and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the battle scenes have a very jingoistic feel to them.

After his victory in Cuba, we flash forward quite a few years where Che has married a former fellow guerrilla and is living the family life in Cuba with five kids. He’s much older and we barely glimpse his new relaxed lifestyle before he’s off to Bolivia to stage another government overthrow and subsequent revolution. But this time, things do not go smoothly.

Bolivia is a country in dire need of equal rights, healthcare and fairness from the government (sound familiar?) but in terms of a revolution, they’d prefer to sit it out. The peasants who are apparently key to any successful revolution are too lazy and scared of what their shady government will do to them (again, sound familiar?) if they help out and, as such, they end up working against Che and his new group of guerrillas. Speaking of Che’s new guerrillas, these guys really suck. To steal a quote from “The Simpsons,” Worst. Guerrillas. Ever. In fact this entire Bolivian revolution stinks from the word go and serves as kind of the antithesis of the Cuban revolution.

Much of “Che” as a whole reminded me of “Full Metal Jacket.” The first half soldiers are learning their way, figuring out what they need to do to survive. But slowly, both films take a turn for the dark and things become FUBAR in a hurry. Another good cinematic comparison would be “Apocalypse Now.” Things start off fresh and cracking then just fall to pieces by the end of the ride. While “Che” is bigger in scope than those two examples and has a different, quieter approach I think the comparisons are apt.

For guys like me a better analogy of what happens in “Che” might be the career of Elvis Presley. When Elvis was young he was charismatic, bold and intriguing. Later in the “Fat Elvis” years, he’s a shadow of what he once was. Still performing because it’s all he knows but realizing his best days are long gone. In “Che” the latter scenes (that will make up “Guerrilla”) are the only real peek into the psyche of Che Guevara and I think the film as a whole suffers because of this. We never really know who Che is and it makes the movie really quite strange. He’s strictly a revolutionary with no real home or ties that bind. If you need a revolution, Che’s your man. But he never opens up or shows feelings and I suppose that’s what the filmmakers are getting at; Che the man was strictly defined by his actions.

Throughout the film there’s no big hero or villain moments. Aside from one awesome U.N. speech, Del Toro as Che just kind of “is.” In fact the film is like an ensemble or, better, a socialist regime wherein no one player is bigger than the other. I can’t really fault the film or Soderbergh for this approach but in hindsight, it left me feeling kind of out of the loop and only touching the surface of an amazing, epic journey. I definitely want and need to see the films again to really grasp the scope of what was going on but overall I feel “Che” is an impressive, epic achievement that just barely misses the mark.

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