Movies We Like
Che: Part One
Everyone can come up with their "overlooked for an Oscar nomination" mis-justice list. Such a list may start with the fact that Martin Sheen wasn’t nominated for Apocalypse Now. And if you want to dig deeper, my list would point out that Orson Welles’ brilliant performance (and direction) in Touch of Evil was overlooked by awards givers. But out of the last ten years the performance and film that had Oscar pedigree written all over it and got no love was Benicio Del Toro and the film Che: Part One. Frankly it barely even got a theatrical release. Of course Che was director Steven Soderbergh’s epic story of the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and, like Tarantino’s Kill Bill double bill, it was so big it was lopped into two different films (and its awards consideration, totally mishandled). They are two very different movies, and Part Two is worth seeing (though much harder terrain if you don’t already know the history of Che’s involvement in trying to bring a revolution to Bolivia). Like history itself, Part One is a more easily digestible piece of pure entertainment, though in the end, the two together help give Che a bigger arch. Like the Cuban revolution itself, the romance is in the buildup, the planning, and the underdog story. The actual governing, not so pretty. But don’t think this is some kind of boring homework assignment, it's wonderful filmmaking anchored by Del Toro’s brilliant performance as the future college dorm-room poster superstar.
The film picks up almost where Walter Salles’ much more popular The Motorcycle Diaries ended. Exiled in Mexico the young Argentinian doctor, Che, is introduced to the budding Cuban intellectual revolutionary Fidel Castro (the also excellent Demian Bichir, who scored a forgotten Oscar nomination for the film A Better Life). Like everyone else Che is mesmerized by the charismatic leader and he agrees to join up. Cut to the jungles of Cuba where a weak Che eventually learns the ropes of a fighting guerilla (wonderfully spoofed in Woody Allen’s Bananas, thirty years earlier). He slowly earns the respect of his comrades and the peasants he meets along the way, to whom he gives free medical care and insists on educating. And though Che becomes a tough talker, he seems to be a poet at heart, a quality Del Toro always brings to his roles -- no matter the part there always seems to be a hipster softy lurking in there. Che also develops a relationship with a young protegee, Aleida March, who actually became his second wife (played by the beautiful Catalina Sandino Moreno, an Oscar nominee for her harrowing work in Maria Full of Grace).
Though the final set piece of the film takes place at the battle for Santa Clara, which was the last leg in the rebel’s taking of the island nation, the film ends on the road to Havana. Soderbergh wisely lets moments play out quietly with a documentary-like realism. We see Che change from idealistic dreamer to brilliant war tactician, and though a guy who speaks of love, he also becomes willing to execute his own men who break his rules. Unlike, say, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Che’s changes are more gradual and it seems to conflict with his general spirit. The film also jumps forward in time, to Che’s 1964 post-revolution strut through Harlem to make his speech at the United Nations, trying to justify the violence that took place during the revolution. He was denounced by the American government, but was welcomed by American leftist and Black radicals as a conquering hero and became a cover boy for so much of the late '60s American Black Power and Student Movements that were inspired by Che and Fidel’s little revolution.
As a youngster Soderbergh exploded onto the scene with his first film, the groundbreaking Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, a movie that helped usher in the age of Indie films, Sundance, and Miramax. It would be another ten years until he hit his big creative streak with Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and the financial jackpot of Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels. His later period since he has moved between TV (The Knick, Behind the Candelabra), oddities (Magic Mike, Bubble) and disappointments (The Good German, The Informant!). But somehow with Che he was able to put all his techniques to use: his docudrama style camerawork, working as his own cinematographer (under his alias Peter Andrews); his feel for period detail (he’s as good as anyone at recreating an era); his gift for eliciting career performances from actors; and his fearless attitude toward often complicated and sophisticated material. In some ways he is a minimalist filmmaker who loves puzzles, he gives bits and pieces and lets the viewer build the big picture in their head, and though Che is a epic, it’s made up of small scenes and snippets, allowing the watcher to paint in the lines. Soderbergh doesn’t always come up on the hip director radar as so many of his generational peers do (Tarantino, David O. Russell, The Coen Brothers), but the guy is a first-ballet hall-of-famer all the way, and Che: Part One cements his importance.