In recent years, the term “procedural” has entered the cultural consciousness at large in describing a style of television series emblematized by Law and Order. Like Dragnet before it, these shows strive for a “Just the facts, ma’am” narrative approach. Steven Soderbergh’s Che is, for the most part, a revolutionary procedural: avoiding the squishiness of Hollywood biopics, Soderbergh focuses on Ernesto "Che" Guevara (the always magnetic Benicio Del Toro) as a political philosopher and a military tactician. Spanning 1954 to 1967, Soderbergh’s two-part film isn’t a biopic (no Che as a little boy, no scenes of the young man courting his wife), but rather an epic recreation of two distinct periods during which the filmmakers conclude that emotion was a luxury, save for the only one that mattered: resolve.
Part One —spanning 1954 to 1964—deals with the Cuban Revolution against US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, progressing from "the Argentine doctor"'s recruitment by Castro to just short of the presidential palace; there's also Che's later visit to New York City to address the UN as head of the Cuban delegation. The more claustrophobically single-minded Part Two—covering 1965-1967—depicts Che’s failed attempt to spread revolution in South America, beginning and ending in Bolivia. The Part One script—credited to Peter Buchman—derives from Guevara's Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, while Part Two—credited to Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen—takes as its source material Guevara's The Bolivian Diary. The first part (a.k.a. "The Argentine") has a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, while the second (a.k.a. "Guerilla") has a 1.85:1 aspect ratio (both were shot with a prototype of the RED digital cine camera). Though both parts have a verité quality, the first part tends to more formal photography, versus the second part's more unsettling rough edges and preponderance of handheld shots.
The design points up Che's glorious rise to prominence and his horrifying downfall; ironically he arrives at both by pursuing the same essential goal and following essentially the same self-imposed rules. In Cuba, Che's charges may be ragtag, but he clearly has their attention and—especially in the youngest soldiers, some of them teenage—their passionate respect and admiration. The commandante's unwavering personal commitment and whip-smart, uncompromising approach demonstrate military leadership at its most resourceful and effective. Though the man remains unchanged, circumstances line up against him in Bolivia, where embedded CIA operatives share their intelligence with the ruling power, and everything (the terrain, his resources) and everyone (the Communist Party of Bolivia, the locals, even his Cuban backers) seem to fail him. At a low, low point of morale, Che tells his troops, “This struggle gives us the opportunity to become true revolutionaries, the highest level of humanity. To become men in the purest sense of the word,” but he's all-too-clearly a military genius surrounded by lesser lights and feeling death at his back.
The film mostly doles out poker-faced lessons in guerilla warfare, and while it doesn't ignore Guevara's hard edges, little attention is paid to his flaws—mostly pegged as idealism and over-confidence. While this take has already earned the film brickbats in some quarters, some detractors conveniently ignore the sequence in "Part One" that represents Che's most controversial chapter: when he presided over executions at La Cabaña prison. Though the narrative doesn't enter into the La Cabaña years, an hour into Part One Soderbergh cuts from Guevara executing traitors in the field to Guevara telling the UN, "Executions? Yes, we have executed. We execute, and we'll continue to execute when it is necessary. Our fight is a fight to the death. These are the conditions in which we live because of the imposition of American imperialism." Brief black-and-white scenes and voice-over narration employ an interview with an American television reporter (Lena Olin) as a device to air Che's political philosophies, culled mostly from his extensive writings. He addresses the illusion of the self-made man under the capitalist system (“The opportunities of most people are determined by forces they cannot even see") and the most important quality of a revolutionary to possess. Surprise: it's "love...love of humanity, of justice and truth."
One might argue that the very existence of the film, with Che as noble protagonist, expresses implicit political sympathy for Guevara and his battle to bring down imperialism, including the pernicious interventionism of the United States (with the CIA casting villainous shadows at the film's fringes). We can argue about what's in and what's out of the film; certainly Che's insistence on literacy—and passing fleeting moments of Guevara playing with kids and healing the sick along his way—contribute to a positive image, but despite the odd smile and the droll throwaway line in NYC "That was a good party," Che hardly comes across as a fun-loving guy, and his most successful mission, in support of Castro, is arguably tragically misbegotten. The filmmakers' impeccable research and defensible structure avoid endorsement by hewing closely to the unembroidered facts of Che's actions, for better and worse. The film makes room for the irony of a celebrity Che among politicos and socialites, in stark contrast to his dangerous jungle toil (or is it?), and Che is hardly pro-Castro, as some have claimed: among other hints there's a parting shot at Castro as the man who knew when to quit while true believer Guevara would march on to an early grave.
Soderbergh’s Che is a complex production, mounted with confidence and scrupulous detail, by one of our great American filmmakers. In tackling a figure, however controversial, of historical importance, Che can be dry, but it's never less than interesting, well filmed and honestly acted. Perhaps the devil's in the details, which are not as superficial as they first appear (what kind of serious asthmatic smokes a pipe and cigars?). Indeed, the big picture is the sum of many quiet but telling moments. When, in New York, a young man-in-waiting inquires of Che, "Will you need me tonight?", he replies, "Little boy, no one is so necessary or indispensible in this life. Don't go thinking that you are indispensible." Nevertheless, it's hard to shake the feeling that, despite its four-and-a-half-hour running time, Che still comes up a hair short in capturing the essence of the man behind the revolutionary procedures.
(NOTE: With credits, Part One runs approximately 135 minutes and Part Two approximately 136 minutes. Most theaters will play both parts separately—requiring separate admission. Several cities will get the Roadshow version, with no advertisements, no trailers, and no credits, but including overture music, an intermission, and a souvenir program that lists the complete credits for both parts.)