One would think that four hours would be enough to capture cinematically the essence of a biographical subject, but Steven Soderbergh's epic "Che" is so wide of the mark as to cause bewilderment in any knowledgeable viewer. "Knowledgeable" meaning an ever so slightly remote or even passing familiarity with the historical penumbra surrounding Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine doctor turned mass murderer and revolutionary symbol.
The film recently concluded a limited-run engagement in Royal Oak, and is slated for wider release as two separate movies. The first half documents the Cuban Revolution, and the second depicts events leading up to Guevara's death in Bolivia in 1967.
That the film ultimately will be released as two movies enabled theater proprietors to double the regular price of admission for the full four-hour extravaganza, causing your writer to ponder what the real Che would have thought of such a bald-faced capitalist scheme. Suffice to say the young woman taking my ticket money wasn't amused when I gave voice to my pondering. "It's your choice," she said, laying down a principled challenge. I thanked her for reminding me of such an important component of the free-market, shelled out my $15 and bivouacked myself for a four-hour theater-seat occupation to view a multi-million dollar Hollywood epic about a Marxist revolutionary while munching my $7.50 popcorn and $5 soda.
While leaving out any information that might sully the commandante's reputation with his superficially informed followers, Soderbergh's film portrays Che as one of the principal architects of the revolution responsible for ending the oppressive Batista regime in Cuba. In the movie and in real life, Che was able to wow some of the world's most gullible intellectuals — the film goes to great lengths to show the fawning showered upon him by the media as well as his ability to gain sympathy from such useful idiots as Eugene McCarthy, Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell — before attaining the iconic stature bestowed upon him after his execution.
Despite Soderbergh's playing to the masses that the contrived pop-culture Che is the real deal, he contemptuously leaves out a few major facts about the handsome revolutionary doctor. For example, Soderbergh's cartoon Che carries a lot of firepower throughout the film, but viewers rarely see him fire a shot and never see one of those shots hit their mark. It recalls the voiceover prologue from the 1970s television Western series "Alias: Smith and Jones," about two charming, reformed outlaws who, despite having robbed many banks and trains in the past, "never shot anybody."
The real Che was well-known for cold-bloodedly executing peasants who chose their families and livelihoods over the revolution. He unnecessarily killed rather than take as prisoners those peasant members of Batista's army who had sought military service only as a means of a steady paycheck; executed comrades for unconfirmed suspicions and without trials; and ordered the deaths of scores of other people as head of Castro's La Cabana gulag. "If in doubt, kill him," was the good doctor's orders to his lieutenants.
What stands out most in Soderbergh's encomium is his devotion to presenting his subject matter as a martyred saint rather than a warts-and-all human character, a fatal flaw for any watchable biography — much less a film that's more than four hours long. For all its efforts to seem significant, epic and the final word on Che, the end result of Soderbergh's film is merely repetitious and boring because it presents a one-dimensional character who appears separate from the backdrop of historical events rather than an active participant. While Che's fellow revolutionaries do a lot of running, marching and shooting, Che broods in a haze of cigar or pipe smoke when he's not applying his medical skills to peasant children or discussing his love of humanity in soft, beatific tones.
Soderbergh's intent to please his audience was rewarded in Royal Oak. Attendees interviewed during the 15-minute intermission and following the second half told your writer that they believed the filmmakers performed a valuable service by providing such a factual depiction of Guevara. Like the journalist in the classic western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" stated: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But mentioning "Che" in the same breath as a John Ford masterpiece is too flattering to Soderbergh's effort. Perhaps more fitting is an episode of the kitsch '70s program "The Brady Bunch," in which a young Bobby is smitten with the legend of Jesse James until an old-timer played by character actor Burt Mustin tells him the truth: "Jesse James was a mean, dirty killer."
As was Che Guevara.
Bruce Edward Walker is communications director for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.