Will people really sit through not one, but two, movies that are each more than two hours long, and in Spanish with subtitles? That's the question I asked myself repeatedly as I watched "CHE: Part One" and "CHE: Part Two" last week.
The answer, in my opinion, is that many people might head to the theaters to see at least the first movie. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary, is such a mythic figure that I think people's curiosity about the guerrilla leader will outweigh the slight discomfort of watching a 131-minute, subtitled movie.
But will people return to the theaters, and pay $10 more, to see the second movie? That's the real question. And I'm guessing that unless people are both Che fanatics and war buffs, they won't be heading back to the movies for a second fight.
The real problem with the CHE movies is that both films are heavily focused on the tactics of fighting a revolutionary war. It's necessary to include war scenes in the film, since Che fought in battles to overthrow the Cuban government, and later tried to start a revolution in Bolivia. But the movies seem to prioritize war scenes over character development, to the point that they depict Che more as a soldier than an inspiring leader.
If these movies were simply about revolutionary wars, I might not care so much about character development. But these movies are about Che, a historical and pop culture icon. Watching the movie, I wanted to better understand what motivated Che to fight, and I wanted to be inspired to stand up for social justice. But after four and a half hours, I gained very little of that knowledge. (I did learn, however, that when Che was not firing guns, he spent most of his time lounging in the jungle, smoking cigars and suffering from asthma attacks.)
There are a few memorable scenes from the movies that depict Che as a passionate leader, and I think the movies should have included more scenes like these. In a speech before the United Nations, Che declares "Patria o muerte!" (Homeland or death!) (I may have erupted into the same cry from my seat on the couch.) In another scene, after the revolutionaries overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban people swarm Che and embrace him. In one of the final scenes of the second movie, Che speaks to those fighting in the Bolivia campaign and tells them that to be a revolutionary is to become a real man. To me, these are the best parts of the films because they show Che's ability to inspire and empower.
Maybe my desire to see Che portrayed as an inspiring revolutionary, rather than a fighter, is evidence that I subscribe to the pop culture myths of Che. But I'm not the only one who views Che as an intriguing historical figure. Even CHE director Steven Soderbergh admits that he was drawn to both the history of Che and his legacy. In his director's statement, Soderbergh says, "I wanted to detail the mental and physical demands these two campaigns required, and illustrate the process by which a man born with an unshakable will discovers his own ability to inspire and lead others." The director succeeded in depicting the two campaigns, but he did not effectively capture the man behind those battles.
If you make the decision to invest about $20 and four and a half hours of your life in the CHE movies, you won't be disappointed. You will emerge from the movies with an idea of how the revolution in Cuba was fought and won, why the campaign in Bolivia was lost, and you will see a link between cigar smoking and asthma attacks.
Just don't expect to be inspired to join a revolution.
CHE: Part One and CHE: Part Two open Friday (Jan. 9.) The movie is directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Benicio del Toro as Che. It is rated R.