I had many thoughts after I watched the four hour, seventeen minute Che biopic. I enjoyed the movie very much, but because I felt I’m somewhat biased, I wanted to know what people thought about it. Would people's opinions be based on what they thought of the movie or what they thought of Che (or, for that matter, Steven Soderbergh and Benicio Del Toro)?
Did people who proclaimed it great do so because it’s a great story or a great film? Did the people who hate it have their own ulterior motives? I also wondered if I would like it myself if I saw it again.
Che, like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, was probably a very hard movie to make. Movies about political icons seem to bring out the worst in people. People are overly passionate on both sides of the fence and on top of that, there's a multitude of critics who are quick to knock down any iconic figure of the far left. Serial killers get better treatment by the press. A journalist from PBS interviewed me during the intermission of the movie when I went to see the film. Most of his questions were asked in a condescending tone: “What do you know about Che other than the image we see on the t-shirt?” and "Is Che relevant today?" Duh…I don’t know, is oppression relevant today?
The reviews of the movies weren’t too glowing. Most of them were of the garden variety. I loved the reviewers who stated that the film was both "too long" and “didn’t give enough of Che was really about.” Really, did we want to sit through a ten-hour movie next time?
The other complaint was that it was mostly in Spanish. Along with the length of the film(s), this really turned off many of the Academy, who didn’t even give the film a blink during the Oscars. Made me wonder how well Slumdog Millionaire, which is a great fim, would have done if the actors spoke in Marathi, Urdu or Hindi. Michael Russnow from Huffington Post summed that mentality best:
Benicio Del Toro is magnetic and haunting as Che, but he has the difficult task of communicating to us through subtitles, as most of the film is told in Spanish. It lends an authentic ring to the story, but distracts our attention somewhat in the manner of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. If a film is truly a foreign film it's one thing, but this is a huge motion picture starring an American actor and directed by an American, and there's no reason why this story couldn't have been told in English.
Other reviews really put their political slant to the mix. I wondered if Mick LaSalle from the SF Chronicle came from a Cuban exiled family:
If Soderbergh made as idol worshiping an epic about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln -- actual heroes with tangible, positive legacies -- people would gag at the naive treatment. Perhaps with Che, the hope is that audiences might be confused or browbeaten into reverence, into just assuming they're missing something.
He went on to say:
This is a pro-Castro, anti-CIA film made by a mainstream American director, and it will be shown in art houses throughout the country. Try making an anti-Fidel, pro-American film in Cuba, and see how that works out for you.
Foreign investment companies funded Che’s 58 million dollar budget once U.S. movie studios bailed when it was known that the movie would be mostly in Spanish. Perhaps knowing that worldwide sales would be better than in fickle North America, it seems to have been a wise investment. Perhaps seeing the movie’s potential elsewhere, Andrew O'Hehir from Salon.com wrote this:
[Che] is something that people will be eager to see and eager to talk about all over the world, something that feels strangely urgent, something messy and unfinished and amazing.
One of the best things about movies is talking about them afterwards. There are so many disposable movies that leave my brain just as soon as they enter it. I have had great conversations about Che with different people. Some I agree with and some I don’t, but it has made enough of an impact that I’ve actually had conversations with people that went beyond, “Did you see it?” and “Did It suck?”.
In any biopic, you are never going to get the full story. People are too complex for that. I imagine as a filmmaker at one point you have to stop listening to everyone’s opinion about a person and just make film the way you see fit. If anything, I think Soderbergh took a tremendous risk by including the less celebrated Bolivian chapter in Che's life. He could have easily made the first triumphant part longer and made a “pop” version of Cuba’s revolution, but didn’t. The long, drawn out scenes of nothing happening in the Bolivian forest are painful to watch, knowing the inevitable will eventually happen. It’s much like the movie The Thin Red Line -- lots of long shots and few battle scenes focusing on the psychology of war over actual fighting. The second part of the movie amost parallels the first part, mainly to show that what worked in Cuba did not work in Boliva.
There are some scenes that are a bit over the top (the scene where Che is on a horse in Bolivia suffering from an asthma attack looks straight out of a western…way over the top!), but overall I thought they did a great job with the acting and the cinematography is pretty amazing. I also think there is a poetry to the movie that is lost in subtitles, not just in dialogue but in accents. The different accents between people from the city and country, from different providences and, in Che's case, another country altogether.
Is it good movie? Yes. Is it a great movie? Perhaps. I’ll let you know when I see it again.