The bio-pic is a bastard genre. You can’t make a good movie if there’s no answer to: why now? Movies are meant to be about the most exciting/meaningful/life-changing moment in a protagonist’s life. If you choose to tell the story of your protagonist’s whole life; where’s the rub? Steven Soderbergh has clearly thought about this dilemma before making Che: Part One. Structurally the movie has rigour; it focuses on the event that led to Che becoming a famous syllable. But Che: Part One is another in a long line of failed bio-pics because it can’t answer another question: why should you care?
The movie begins with an interview. This is movie shorthand for: an important man is speaking. But you don’t hear his voice. What you hear is the voice of an interpreter. This is the voice of the movie; an interpreter’s voice: intelligent, well-informed, dead.
Che is in New York in the 1960s. He’s a celebrity. A fawning American left-wing coterie delights in his wisdom. He regales his interviewer with tales of the Cuban revolution, and you see these struggles enacted on-screen. You see Che coughing in the jungle (stoic), Che tending to the wounded (compassionate), and Che capturing Santa Clara (a hero!). He looks and sounds and acts authentic, but – throughout – you’re watching a man you don’t know.
I can imagine Benicio Del Toro wanting to beat me up for that last sentence. And I sympathise. Del Toro looks like he slept under mortar fire for most of Che: Part One. His commitment to playing Guevara accurately is obvious. But he won’t get an Oscar nomination for it. The reason is: he’s too accurate. Che Guevara here is a man, not a starring role. And I know (I know!) that’s what Soderbergh and Del Toro wanted. And I know it’s what I should want. I know how refreshing his portrayal should be after so many hubristic turns by stars playing real-life heroes, but… dammit, I want my bloody Braveheart moment. I want Che to say “…they make take our lives, but they’ll never take OUR FREEDOM!” – or something. I want to know – even if Che: Part One has to lie to me – why I should believe in Che Guevara.
Movies aren’t meant to be dispassionate. They don’t do well with objectivity. That’s why a lot of Steven Soderbergh’s movies don’t work. Solaris omits the “love” from its cerebral love story. The Good German works so hard at working on two levels it doesn’t work on either one. Soderbergh wants Che: Part One to be realist, like The Battle of Algiers, with berets. But realism is dangerous. Like life, it risks you missing what’s important. Realism accrues detail and through a mass of details; tells its story. Like biographies (and why I hate biographies): it’s all fact and no flourish. Che: Part One is a sober assessment of what it’s like to be part of an armed insurgency. But it doesn’t make your heart race. And dammit: that’s important! If you don’t want to jump in a ditch and fight for this man, if you don’t know who he is and you’re not at least a bit in love with him: why sit through two hours? Lionising Che might run counter to Communist doctrine, but… His name is the f—ing title! Deal with it!
The only good bio-pics are those about made-up people. Real people spend too much time not having exciting/meaningful/life-changing moments. That’s my whole problem with “realism”. Wasn’t drama invented to spice up life? A movie like Che: Part One wants to show you the revolución as it was: stripped of glory, drained of adrenaline. But wouldn’t a true movie re-telling be authentic in a better way? Obviously it’s possible to tell a story without embellishment. But what if you accept that the false flourishes of so many movies are a way of saying: this isn’t the facts, this is a good story. Che: Part One presents a history lesson when it should be burning the screen.