In 1956, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) found himself spearheading a campaign to bring down the corrupt Batista government in Cuba, but he was not working alone of course, as the figurehead of the movement was Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir), the man whose fiery rhetoric had inspired a small army to land on the shores of the south of the island in the first place. It would take them two years and make them the sworn enemy of the powerful United States who were backing the Batista regime, but victory would be theirs, no matter what the cost...
There had been films featuring Che Guevara before this one, but the most notorious was the late sixties revolutionary epic Che!, a Hollywood movie which managed to offend everyone with an interest in the subject, whether personal or otherwise thanks to fumbling just about every aspect in the popular opinion. When director Steven Soderbergh came to make his own epic from the man's life, he went into an amount of detail which was apparently there to show he and his screenwriter Peter Buchman had done their homework (based on the actual diaries), and you couldn't accuse them of glossing over anything or cutting corners, okay?
That did mean there were probably even fewer people who saw his two-part work than saw the flop of around forty years before, as we were in strictly arthouse territory here, a far cry from Soderbergh's slick blockbusters, though the storytelling here was no less accomplished for what he was aiming for. Yet rather than concentrate on the intimate details of Guevara's existence he preferred to step back and take a more balanced view, to the extent that the first part was not so much level headed as it was verging on the noncommittal. You couldn't fault the attention to the finer points, but this was so much like a history lesson that getting emotionally involved with the characters was not easy.
Del Toro had brought to this a great deal of research, but given we weren't looking through a microscope and more gazing through a telescope, most of what emerges from his portrayal appeared dangerously close to polemic, with only the odd scene offering a dash of the personality of the man. The film used the framework of an interview with Che from about five years after the capture of Cuba's capital Havana from the Batista forces, with Julia Ormond as a journalist asking the questions, many of them pressing and to the point, but not getting much more than a party political broadcast from the revolutionary turned leader, much as you'd expect his overseer Castro to come up with in the same circumstances.
When Ormond makes a sharp inquiry of his true feelings about commanding all this that has happened, Che fobs her off with a non-answer which unfortunately is the tone of the rest of the movie: you can see what occurred, but after the umpteenth shot of revolutionary soldiers traipsing through the jungle it does begin to grow monotonous. It's strange how little this fires you up whether you agreed with the subject's politiics or not, as every scene tells you right, then this happened, then this, then something else without much of the ups and downs every one of the people involved must have been feeling. We can admire Guevara's organisational skills but he comes across as more a cog in a machine, a vital one but not standing out for any noble qualities when the capture of Cuba was going on. This may be faithful to the Marxist, we're all in this together comrades, point of view, and you could tell there was a grand plan in Soderbergh's mind, yet it remained remote and rather cold. Music by Alberto Iglesias.
Versatile American writer, director and producer whose Sex Lies and Videotape made a big splash at Cannes (and its title has become a cliche). There followed an interesting variety of small films: Kafka, King of the Hill, noir remake The Underneath, Schizopolis (which co-starred his ex-wife) and Gray's Anatomy.
Then came Out of Sight, a smart thriller which was successful enough to propel Soderbergh into the big league with The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Oscar-winning Traffic and classy remake Ocean's 11. When Full Frontal and his Solaris remake flopped, he made a sequel to Ocean's 11 called Ocean's 12, material he returned to with Ocean's 13. Che Guevara biopics, virus thriller Contagion and beat 'em up Haywire were next, with the director claiming he would retire after medication thriller Side Effects and Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. He returned after a period of even greater activity with heist flick Logan Lucky and his first horror, Unsane.