Nearly four and a half hours long, spanning more than a decade and reconstructing a pair of brutal insurgencies, Che surely deserves the overworked, frequently misapplied name of epic. Steven Soderbergh's new film, a two-part portrait of the Argentine doctor-turned-international revolutionary Ernesto Guevara (it opens in limited release as one film on Friday and as two films early next year), plants itself squarely in an old tradition of martial poetry: it sings of arms and the man.
But in chronicling the deeds of their hero - and the heroism of Ernesto Guevara is not something Che has any interest in questioning - Mr. Soderbergh and the screenwriter, Peter Buchman, restrict themselves to a narrow register of themes and effects. This is a very long song composed in about three notes. Its motifs are facial hair, tobacco smoke and earnest militant bombast. (The excellent score, less austere in its moods and effects, is by Alberto Iglesias.)
The first half, detailing the grinding campaign of Fidel Castro's guerrilla army against the government of Fulgencio Batista, which culminated in Batista's ouster in 1959, is intercut with scenes of a visit to New York that Guevara made in 1964 to address the United Nations General Assembly. Those bits, shot in a gorgeously grainy mock-antique black-and-white, offer a bit of visual relief from the long slog through the Cuban countryside, as well as providing an occasion for defiant revolutionary apologetics.
The New York passages also establish Guevara's status as a demon in the eyes of the American government and a celebrity and fetish object for, as far as the movie is concerned, just about everyone else. Journalists interview him in purring, fawning tones. An unctuous fan in round spectacles asks for an autograph. Cocktail party guests in an elegant Manhattan apartment crowd around him. But Che, media star and darling of the international left-leaning intelligentsia, regards the fuss with detachment, preferring to sit and smoke with the common folk in kitchens and back rooms.
Che, in effect, represents the position of a person at that cocktail party who feels superior to the others because, unlike those liberal phonies, he really understands, in the depths of his soul, the Cuban revolution and the agonies of the third world. More dogmatic than thou (and certainly than Walter Salles's 2004 Motorcycle Diaries, a vivid and sympathetic picture of the young Ernesto Guevara), Che not only participates in the worship of its subject but also spares no effort to insulate him from skepticism. Benicio Del Toro's performance is technically flawless: you can be sure when he crooks his arm to look at his watch, or squints at a comrade through a plume of pipe smoke, or peels an orange, that you are seeing the thing done exactly as Che would have done it. He also infuses the character with the full and considerable measure of his own charisma.
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