If The Motorcycle Diaries insipidly diminished Ernesto “Che” Guevara into an easily consumable plush-doll for unspecific rebellion, Steven Soderbergh's Che trains a cooler head and a sharper eye on the controversial leader. The distance between the two pictures might be measured by the approaches of their leading actors: Contrasted with Gael García Bernal's puppyish eagerness in the earlier film, Benicio del Toro as El Comandante's latest incarnation resists crowd-pleasing gestures and charm to such a degree that the usually fiery performer seems like a drugged tiger. In a genre—the biopic—generally given to grandiose close-ups, Soderbergh insists on detached middle- and long-shots that impose a contemplative distance and, often, de-centralize the narrative by making the title protagonist just one element in a wide-ranging composition.
Guevara is as intricate a figure (and as much of a cultural hero) as Bob Dylan, but while Todd Haynes in I'm Not There tried (disastrously) to dissect Dylan through a series of semantic gallery illustrations, Soderbergh more intriguingly posits Guevara as one of the many cogs in the machinery of political insurrection. As a result, the film wavers repeatedly from the engrossing to the arid, though it's an admirable gamble for a filmmaker who seemed to be permanently stuck with Danny Ocean and his gang of cutesy panderers.
Beginning with Guevara's decision in 1955 to join the Cuban Revolution to overthrow Batista and ending with his 1967 execution (with strategic jumps and omissions in between), Che proceeds as two mammoth analytical blocks which combine into a nearly five-hour narrative. The introductory glimpses of the protagonist in the first half (The Argentine) are teases of the fully-formed icon, quick flashes of his cigar, military boots and fervid dark eyes as Guevara sits for a TV interview during his 1964 New York City tour. The hopscotching between the New York scenes (shot in anamorphic 16mm black and white) and the movement's guerilla tactics in Cuba's jungles in the late '50s (lushly photographed by Soderbergh himself) suggests the connection between a revolution's foot soldier and its celebrity figurehead, a relationship that, in keeping with the film's willful lack of conventional heroics, remains purely one of cause and effect.
Arriving in Cuba in 1956, del Toro's Guevara is a weak-lunged healer who makes himself strong through physical ordeals and whose compassionate dedication helps Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) oust Batista. Swarming with flares of hard, terse activity (and at least one remarkable cinematic coup, as a train derailing is caught with a simple, eye-level turn of the camera), The Argentine excites in spite of its own attempts to drain the dramatic urgency from the narrative.
After putting viewers through skirmish after severe skirmish, part one perversely denies them the privilege of sharing the protagonist's triumph by concluding just as the victorious Guevara drives to Havana in 1959. “We won the war, the revolution begins now,” he says, and so the second half (Guerilla) skips ahead to 1965 to trace the leader's ultimately doomed attempt to bring the revolution to the rest of Latin America. Sporting a new identity, Che infiltrates Bolivian territory but his insurrective faction is rejected by the country's own communist party and finally quashed by the CIA-trained Bolivian regime.
Whereas Guevara's memoir Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War gives The Argentine its sanguine timbre, Guerilla takes its gloomier mood from The Bolivian Diary, staging its trajectory as a death march for the ideals the man fought for. The luxuriant greens of part one give way to grayish earth tones, and, as the protagonist lurches toward his demise, colors seem to bleed off the trees and skies in an attempt to visualize the slow dissipation of the flame of a revolution. (Moments such as the overhead vista of fighters materializing out of the foliage are reminders that Che was once upon a time a Terence Malick project.) The finale is anticlimactic, but how else to end a work predicated on audience frustration?
Too emotionally dry to embrace but too ingenious to dismiss, Che is a fascinating, problematic film. You have to admire the stones of any movie that opens with a wordless lecture on Cuban geography but refuses to give any specifics about Castro's revolution, yet there's also the temptation to overpraise Soderbergh's structuralist approach more for what it eschews (speeches, romance, identification) than for what it offers. The problem is that, despite his desire to sidestep Hollywood bio-hooey, the director is unable to turn his chilly stance into an ideological perspective, like Roberto Rossellini did in his demythologized portraits of Louis XIV, Garibaldi and Pascal. Worse, his rigor wobbles as the picture goes on—the fade-to-white POV shot of Guevara as he's shot is a bizarre stylistic choice that momentarily throws this resolutely anti-transcendental film askew, and, when Matt Damon turns up in a cameo, it's as much of a forehead-slapper as John Wayne's drawling centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Soderbergh's professed neutrality toward Guevara's life and times succeeds mostly in leeching the emotion out of them, so that the revolutionary leader rattles inside his own epic. A work of intelligent fastidiousness rather than vivid inspiration, Che's ultimate failure is best encapsulated in an early scene in which Guevara's quoting of Tolstoy is juxtaposed with a brutal confrontation. No other American biopic would have tried it, but who knew such bold experimentation could be so…academic?