In Steven Soderbergh's film biography Che, a journalist asks the revolutionary: "How does it feel to be a symbol?" He replies: "A symbol of what?" It's a telling moment, because Che Guevara is as ambiguous an icon now as at the time of his death in 1967.
That's due in no small part to Alberto Korda's famous Che photograph, which is on the Cuban three-peso note - as well as T-shirts favored by a particular kind of college student and a bikini sported a couple of years ago by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen. There's anxiety across the political spectrum over what the latter-day Che iconography means. But politics aside, much of the Korda photo's power stems from Che's extraordinary charisma, which suffuses the image even when it's stenciled on some kid's backpack.
That same charisma blazes in Che thanks to a remarkable performance by Benicio Del Toro as Guevara. When he's calmly talking to guerrillas and peasants about literacy and social justice, when he's giving medical care to villagers (Che was a physician), when he's addressing the United Nations with wry passion, Del Toro looks like a graceful leader. Whatever you think of revolution in general and the Cuban revolution in particular, these sequences will likely help you understand why people fought and died with the man.
That said, between moments like those it's a long, long slog through the jungle. Che clocks in at four and a half hours, and even as a two-parter, which is how Sundance is screening the film, that's a whole lot of movie. Understand, I'm not against long films. Love 'em. But I'm not convinced that what Soderbergh has crafted really fills out the running time. He focuses so tightly on Che in the jungle - his sweating, bearded face, his asthmatic heavings - that the historical and geopolitical forces around Che, the stuff of great epics, tend to fall away. What's left is the image of the guerrilla leader and his cadres fretting over canned milk.
Of course, worrying about details can be part of leadership, and it's fascinating to watch Che do that even as he talks up his revolutionary goals - farm reform, good health care - and astutely plots paramilitary strategies. That's the pleasure, certainly, of Che's first half, which chronicles the meeting of Guevara and Fidel Castro and, then, their armed insurrection. That begins with a 1956 boat trip to Cuba and ends three years later as guerrillas triumph over the Batista regime. These sequences in the green jungle are interspersed with black-and-white scenes from Guevara's visit to New York in 1964. In rumpled fatigues he addresses the U.N. and schmoozes with Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
The film's second, and considerably darker, half picks up seven years after the Cuban revolution, as Guevara slips incognito into Bolivia. He's there to lead a guerrilla strike against President René Barrientos, who has enlisted the help of American operatives. (They boast, ominously in retrospect, of their successes in Vietnam.) As subtitles mark the aching passing of days, Che squabbles with underlings and helps make the revolutionary case to wary peasants, who are suspicious of the outsiders.
Although Che has its satisfactions, I'm not sure it succeeds as biography. That's because Soderbergh focuses so intently on the guerrilla struggles that he leaves too much out, including - other than the moment of the U.N. speech - the years when Che held actual power as a functionary of the state of Cuba. It was a time of ruthlessness. "We execute, and we'll continue to execute when it is necessary," he dryly tells the U.N., and he's talking about executing people, not plans. But it's one thing for him to talk about that, another to be shown it. In this film's telling, Che's only arbitrarily brutal moment comes when he punches a mule in the face.
Soderbergh's film suffers because he focuses mainly on Che's extraordinary personality and only glancingly on the ideas he was fighting for - and hardly at all on what happened when those ideas became policies. Which is to say, I didn't learn much more from Che than I already knew from the T-shirt.