The story of “Che: Part One”, or “Che: The Argentine” is the story of the Cuban revolution- a gradual succession of guerilla skirmishes through Cuban towns and countryside, from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, through central Cuba, to the decisive battle at Santa Clara, and on to Habana. This is interspersed with Che’s trip to New York to address the UN General Assembly. The switching works quite well, and one is presented with a portrait of a quiet, even introspective, but firmly ideologically committed revolutionary. The parts in Cuba reminded me of my own time there in 2003- the train wreck I saw in Santa Clara, the brilliance of Camilio Cienfuegos’s beard, and the battle cry “patria o muerte”, fatherland or death, that is printed onto Cuban coins, along with Che’s head.
In directing a film about such a naturally interesting man and period in history, it’s hard to see how director Stepen Soderberg could have failed. Yet the film is not an entire success. Despite Benicio del Toro’s perfect likeness to play the part of El Che, we are left with a character who seems to keep his calm while all around do not- someone who seems almost superhumanly calm in fact- we don’t see the struggle and the personal hardship that must have inevitably come with the time. I would have liked to see more of Che’s relationship with Fidel too- I found the latter far more interesting when on screen, indeed he seemed a more three dimensional character and was played exceptionally well by Demian Bechir. All of the leads bear very close resemblance to their revolutionary characters: as mentioned, we get to see young Camilio Cienfuegos rise through the ranks, as well as Raul Castro, Fidel’s right hand man. The New York scenes allow us a funny encounter at a hotel party, when Che meets Joe McCarthy and thanks him for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Che: Part One is a fascinating film if you are interested in Cuba. It goes nicely with The Motorcycle Diaries as the next ‘stage’ in Che’s life (I will be back with a review of Che: Part Two). It is not a total success- I think overall Soderberg hedged his bets, trying to get bits of everything: drama, war story, biopic, rather than focusing on one of these aspects. Having said this, it is certainly no failure.