Why ‘Che’ is a great film, but not Oscar material

Posted by · 8:42 am · November 9th, 2008

CheMost biographical films tend to play like sort of a “greatest hits” of that person’s life, and sadly much of the negative of that life is left out. Sir Richard Attenborough is most guilty of this with “Gandhi,” his hugely overrated epic about the Mahatma, who did everything short of walking on water in the film. The man was human, and by all historical accounts, had his issues, yet not one of them is in the film.

Hollywood has been making biopics like that years. Anyone remember the final moments of “Man of a Thousand Faces,” the story of Lon Chaney, the great silent screen actor as portrayed by James Cagney?  Despite a pretty decent performance, the movie is ruined by a howler of an ending in which a dying Chaney scribbles “Jr.” beside his name on his make-up kit, thereby giving his son his blessing to go into the business.

Anyone who knows anything about the two Chaneys knows that senior did NOT want his boy anywhere near the movie business. “Gable and Lombard” and “W.C. Fields and Me” anyone? Jeez Louise, what a terrible pair of films with no connection to the lives of the subjects within.

In recent years biopics have gotten marginally better with “Malcolm X” and “Nixon” leading the way from directors that refused to candy coat their subjects and allowed them to be portrayed warts and all. Of course, Martin Scorsese did this with “Raging Bull,” but the entire point of his film was about a man forever shadow boxing with his own demons, unable to find decency within himself.

I quite liked what Meryl Streep and Sam Neill accomplsihed with their characters in “A Cry in the Dark,” never romanticizing them or allowing them to become overly likable for the audience. That sort of realism, to me, is exciting. To see real life people portrayed with their flaws.  It’s real, accurate, truthful.  This humanizes them.  This makes them people, not things.

I remember struggling with “Walk the Line,” not because of Joaquin Phoenix’s fine performance, but because the film never really explored why Cash found God and why he made the decision to become the man in black. This was essential to understanding the man. Instead we have a love story, when the real story is so much more interesting.

Why did I like “Che” so much?  It seemed to me that Steven Soderbergh and his crew had somehow jumped into a time machine and emerged to plunk their cameras down and capture the life of Ernesto Guevera on film for this generation. Benicio Del Toro, in a performance of enormous beauty and restraint, slips under the skin of the character and simply inhabits him for four-and-a-half hours. No grandstanding, no huge emotional scenes, he simply is.

It is a performance done largely with the eyes, and one must be paying attention to fully appreciate the weight and purity of the work. Ever watchful, Che takes in his surroundings in and stock of his men at all times. It may seem that there is not a lot going on with the portrayal.  But he is capturing the essence of a man to utter perfection.

Soderbergh makes no apology for his film.  We have a sort of mainstream director who has also been a major force in the world of independent filmmaking.  He makes a massive film, in Spanish no less, about one of the most iconic people of the 20th century. For me this is among the most daring achievements in film since, well, MIchael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate.”  Soderbergh gave his film an urgency, an immediacy that was breathtaking to be a part of.

But is it a film the Academy will embrace? Though they should, I do not believe they will. The length will scare off some viewers, while others will miss the subtle work of Del Toro (the real actors will get it). It is a film destined to be discovered, I think, by future generations. While it is a historical film, which the Academy usually embraces, it is also a demanding film, asking that the viewer read subtitles, that they sit for a long time, and that they patiently explore the life of this man, with very few large emotional moments.

AMPAS will stay away, but you shouldn’t.

→ 6 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

6 responses so far

  • 1 11-09-2008 at 9:20 am

    -A said...

    This is what Pete Hammond wrote in “Notes on a Season” on October 31 ’08:

    “… Another interesting Oscar possibility to watch that AFI unspools is Steven Soderbergh’s two-part epic, “Che” which initially played to mixed response in Cannes in May. The screening of all 262 minutes (about 20 minutes shorter now and with a 20-minute intermission) is said to be drawing huge response from several actors and Academy members, according to representatives for the film. This comes in the wake of a New York Academy screening that we are told also drew enthusiastic response from potential voters, particularly for Cannes Best Actor Benicio Del Toro’s performance. Could there be a turnaround from the early critical brickbats it took before hitting America? The earliest indication will be to count how many empty seats there are as Part 2 begins.”


  • 2 11-09-2008 at 10:39 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Yeah…I’m not buying it. Pete will sometimes print something as indicative of the whole just from speaking to a handful of members.

  • 3 11-09-2008 at 10:45 am

    Kokushi said...

    Cant wait to see it and i dont see the big thing about subtitles? I live in latin american and all the movie come with subtitles and its great, LOTR is one of my favorite trilogys but no way in hell i will see them in english but here they prefer to bring chihuaha movie instead of this movie, sad but true.

  • 4 11-09-2008 at 11:40 am

    garbogarbo said...

    It´s a great film??? Really??? I think it´s bored, confused and soulless… I came out the theater before it finished. Disaster!

  • 5 11-09-2008 at 3:36 pm

    Zan said...

    Filmcomment, the premiere film magazine, did a cover story this month on Che, from Soderbergh’s road to the end to del Toro’s nuanced, incredibly subtle performance. All indications point to it being one we look back on and ridicule the Academy for being too audience-friendly in its picks. It’s how I felt when Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James got virtually no recognition last year.

  • 6 11-09-2008 at 4:53 pm

    John Foote said...

    Right on Zan, that is where we are headed…