Steven Soderbergh definitely has a pair on him. What other director would expect us to follow him through a four-and-a-half-hour epic — in Spanish with English subtitles — about Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine doctor who helped Fidel Castro pull off the Cuban revolution? When Che opens in a few weeks, you can experience it in a single big sit or catch it in two parts (the first film is called The Argentine, the second Guerrilla) or rent it on DVD as early as January. Confession: Despite my admiration for Soderbergh and Benicio del Toro, the Puerto Rican Oscar winner for Soderbergh’s Traffic who plays Che, I dreaded seeing it.
I was wrong. First of all, no one who cares about organic film acting (the opposite of showing off) will want to miss del Toro’s magnificent performance, his hooded eyes reflecting wells of idealism and torment. Del Toro keeps you riveted. I’m not saying that Che doesn’t hit a few bumps on the road to coherence. But diving into the movie’s riches is an experience you won’t forget or regret. Che lets you in on the play of ideas that built a foundation for rebellion.
If you know Che only from his cool counterculture face on T-shirts, and Soderbergh from his Ocean‘s capers, then this movie won’t be what you’re expecting. Which is all to the good. Soderbergh says he was drawn to what goes into “implementing any large-scale political idea” — a challenge that seems timelier than ever.
The Argentine shows the young Ernesto meeting Castro (Demián Bichir) in 1956 and joining his rebel force to defeat U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. The scenes of warfare, with the asthmatic Ernesto choking for breath in the hills, are intercut with Ernesto, now known as Che to his followers, visiting the United Nations in 1964 and reveling in his image as a Marxist icon. Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman don’t canonize Che. It’s more debatable that they don’t condemn his use of death squads to quiet the opposition.
Guerrilla deals with Che in Bolivia, as he leads a 1966 campaign to bring the spirit of the Cuban uprising to South America. Soderbergh details a punishing series of skirmishes that result in Che’s capture and execution. This section is nothing less than a blueprint for revolution and the forces that can make or break it.
Che is a work of grand ambition. The cinematographer Peter Andrews (a Soderbergh pseudonym) grabs hold of a newfangled nine-pound digital camera and creates images of startling beauty and immediacy. Che looks dazzling, whether the camera is weaving through a battle or trying to bore into Che’s haunted soul. Del Toro stands up to Soderbergh’s relentless scrutiny. As for the movie, it’s a reward to audiences eager to break from the play-it-safe pack. Game on.