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Che, Steven Soderbergh (2008)

It’s weird how this enormous two-part, four-hour, years-in-the-making film came and went without much fanfare, and then shows up in the Criterion Collection, like, boom, immediately.

Before my brief take on this movie, can we have a moment where we think about what a psycho Steven Soderbergh is? He directs anything and everything from broad comedy to heist pictures to period dramas, produces, does TV, messes around with low-budget quickies like The Girlfriend Experience, and — did you know this? — his cinematographer, Peter Andrews, is him. That’s right. He does his own cinematography, under a nom de film.

As for Che. One thing that always frustrates about biopics is their inevitable, maybe inescapable, impulse to superimpose a Freytag structure on the subject’s life, when of course very few lives — except those of certain musicians — really follow that formula. The first part of Che hews to this line; it’s the story of the Cuban revolution, from exposition to rising action to climax to denouement. It’s a brisk and stylish two hours, but it is quite dramatically predictable, with all the usual biopic tropes in evidence, e.g. “scene where significant reversal of fortune leads to strengthening of resolve,” etc.

It’s part two of Che that’s finally the more interesting — because it’s boring. In this part, Che leaves Cuba to try to start a revolution in Bolivia. At first, as in part one, the movie proceeds like a politicized Ocean’s Eleven, with all the different protagonists gathering, making plans, and looking incredibly cool in their slouchy fatigues. If you know your history, though, you know that Che’s efforts in Bolivia were disastrous, and Soderbergh does a wonderful job of letting the tension gradually drain away as Che’s situation becomes less and less viable. Scenes get longer and quieter. Dialogue meanders. Che makes bold decisions of the kind which would have, in part one, caused decisive narrative progress, but which here lead only to confusion and stagnation. I found myself both blessing and cursing Soderbergh as the tragedy dwindled toward its final bang/whimper. He lets the film get stuck in a ditch just as deep as the one the guerrillas find themselves trapped in. It’s an instance of the imitative fallacy which I think works quite brilliantly.

A stray final thought: I notice the light in Soderbergh’s movies in a way I rarely do in other contemporary directors. The glowing trunk scene in Out of Sight, all that amazing Vegas gibigiana in the Oceans, the contrasty slashes of shadow in The Good German, and here the blue forest twilight Che dies in. It’s really extremely manipulative, the way Soderbergh uses light — it’s so damned slick, nearly car-commercial slick sometimes. Yet I can’t help it, I think it’s quite beautiful. It will be really interesting to see what these films look like twenty years from now, whether they’ll seem antiquated. I guess the larger thought here is about visual style and how it persists or doesn’t.

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