See just Part One and it may feel like an odd, faintly flat biopic; watch it all and you see Soderbergh isn’t even out to make a biopic in any conventional sense of the term.
For one thing, of course, he didn’t need to tread the path of traditional portraiture, as Walter Salles’s‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ has already dealt with how an Argentinian medic’s encounters with suffering and injustice transformed his political awareness. Moreover, while Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is undoubtedly at the centre of Soderbergh’s diptych, he’s not the main focus of interest, in that this is a film about the process of revolutionary struggle.
Part One – spanning from 1955, when Guevara first met Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) in Mexico City, to 1964, when he visited New York to address the United Nations assembly – mainly chronicles the guerilla campaign fought by a tiny, initially ragged band of rebels against the army supporting the Cuban dictator Batista.
Flashing backwards and forwards in time, it frames the guerrillas’ slow but still miraculous progress, from the Sierra Maestra to a finally decisive victory in Santa Clara, within a discussion (based on Guevara’s speeches and writings) of revolutionary strategy, in terms of both practice and theory. During this time the pragmatic strategist Che becomes ever more crucial to Castro. But at the same time, he’s just one component in a campaign dependent on the growing support of Cuba’s peasant population.
If Part One ends on an unexpectedly cool note, given the rebels’ victory, that’s not because Soderbergh has failed to provide a feelgood celebration of heroic triumph, but because it’s the midpoint of a careful consideration of Guevara’s achievements. Part Two finds him arriving incognito in Bolivia in 1966, in the hope of taking, with the help of a few Cuban comrades, the revolution to impoverished, frightened Indian farmers none too happy about foreigners stirring up the authorities against them. The infighting among the left negotiated by Castro in Cuba is more problematic in Bolivia; the CIA is sniffing around; Guevara, still plagued by asthma, is older; and where Cuba ended in glory, Bolivia brings failure and death.
In short, Part Two stands in dramatic contrast to its predecessor, and where Part One boasts a fragmented, garrulous narrative with different time frames shot in ’Scope in different colours and black and white, the Bolivian episode is linear, quieter, shot in muted, almost monochrome greens, greys and blues, framed in a less expansive, more claustrophobic ratio. (Like the performances and the staging of action sequences, the camerawork – Soderbergh himself shooting with the new, high-def RED camera – is superb throughout.) This formal audacity is matched by an eschewal of traditional heroics; Soderbergh is interested in what it entails to fight for revolutionary ideals: not just courage, cunning, expertise, loyalty, but the hardships, sacrifices… and the cost of mistakes. It’s not a Hollywood-style movie – it demands patience and proper attention – but it’s a great movie, and rewards magnificently.