For a four and a half hour movie, it’s surprising how little Steven Soderbergh’s Che covers, how much it feels like it leaves out.
I don’t mean just in terms of events left out, but whole aspects of Che Guevara’s life and character and career.
Of the four and a half hours, probably four hours is spent following Che (Benicio Del Toro) and other guerillas fighting in Cuba and later Bolivia, fifteen minutes is spent on Che’s trip to the United Nations in 1964, ten minutes is spent on titles and credits, and five minutes is spent on everything else combined.
So if you want to really immerse yourself in guerilla warfare from the guerilla perspective, and learn about that aspect of Che’s life, this is an excellent movie for you. Anything else, not so much.
The scenes of Che at the UN are in black and white and are interspersed throughout the first half of the movie. They are not particularly well integrated into the movie–they distracted me from my efforts to follow the progress of the guerilla war in Cuba, almost like commercial breaks–but at least they provide more of the ideology to go with the endless scenes of people marching through jungles and shooting each other in ambushes.
The movie is certainly sympathetic to Che and the Cuban Revolution. It’s borderline hagiographic. It doesn’t go as far in that direction as, say, the typical American movie of decades ago about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, but American conservatives and anti-Castro Cubans will see much to despise in this movie.
The film depicts Che as utterly sincere in his desire for a more just world. He’s obviously willing to use violence to get it, but I don’t know that anyone other than pacifists has standing to condemn him for that.
Would I prefer he have been a champion of Gandhian methods? Absolutely. But I’m not of the school of thought that somehow rebels fighting against an existing state are morally obligated to limit themselves to nonviolent means, while states are not. No one ever says that states should disband their armies and police forces and never use violence, or if they do they’re laughed at. But I think the moral imperative to refrain from violence–including state violence–in the service of injustice, such as the violence of Batista and his military, is stronger than the imperative to refrain from violence when opposing such injustice, as we see from Che in this movie.
A separate point, though, is whether revolutionary violence works in bringing about a more just world. The evidence is mixed. At least as a rule of thumb, though, the evidence supports the notion that violence begets violence, that violent revolutions either fail while causing unjust regimes to be all the more violent and oppressive in response, or they succeed but then the way they govern is consistent with the methods by which they obtained power and they become oppressive as well.
The film makes the point repeatedly–how accurately I don’t know–that Che, both with Castro (Demian Bichir) and the Cuban guerillas and later with the Bolivian guerillas, was focused as much or more on “winning hearts and minds” as on war. He was a doctor before a guerilla, and he spends considerable time providing medical care to the peasants his forces interact with. He is strict about disallowing the kind of brutality associated with a marauding army, among other things requiring that any food or other supplies obtained from peasants be paid for at a fair price or above.
There is no more than a perfunctory acknowledgement that the Castro regime was and is far from a communist utopia. Che is made to comment in passing in the movie that the executions and continuing violence of the regime are kept to the minimum necessary, and that Cuba is making “progress,” but that’s about it. We actually see nothing of life in Cuba under Castro–neither good nor bad–and the introduction of Soviet nuclear weapons and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis that came fairly close to incinerating the world in a nuclear exchange between superpowers is not even mentioned. The movie pretty much leaves Cuba after Castro and Che and the guerillas score the last military victory to open the way to Havana and make the triumph of the revolution inevitable.
I find myself thinking about this film in comparison with Gandhi, a similarly unconventionally long biopic, also largely celebratory, about another of the 20th century’s great rebels who captured a good portion of the world’s imagination. And while Gandhi has elements that are arguably equally or more simplistic and hokey as Che, I’m struck by how “small” this film seems in comparison, and how obscure it leaves its central figure.
Again, it’s so intent on conveying the psychology and tactics of guerilla war that it does virtually nothing else. I have more of a sense of Che’s sincerity and the intensity of his commitment to assist oppressed people to throw off their oppressors than before I saw the film certainly, but I feel like in four and a half hours I should know him considerably better.
It’s an impressive achievement without a doubt, and it’ll be beneficial if it encourages viewers to learn more about Che and the successful and unsuccessful revolutions he took part in–especially if they examine both the pros and the cons–but I don’t feel I can give it more than a qualified, limited recommendation as a movie.