Che (Part One): The Argentine

The first film in Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) epic tracks the charismatic revolutionary as he joins Fidel Castro's (Demián Bichir) band of Cuban exiles and journeys to the island on a leaky boat in 1956. From these humble beginnings, the small team of rebels mobilise popular support and recruit an army which will ultimately topple the US-friendly regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, while Che himself undergoes a transformation from a simple doctor to one of the most iconic political figures of the modern age.

The man behind the t-shirt design.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: What do you do with a famous life that’s been reduced to a single iconic image on the t-shirts of 40 years’ worth of teenagers around the world? The obvious answer would be a narrative-driven demystification, a biopic of strenuous and exhaustive detail. But if the subject is Che Guevara, the most famous revolutionary of the 20th century, then the fitting response would be to upend the status quo.

Steven Soderbergh’s two part, four-and-a-half-hour dissection of Che’s working methods, as opposed to his achievements, is akin to an act of guerilla warfare on the historical epic. Like Che in the mountains of Cuba 50 years ago plotting to overthrow President Batista, the pictures are intent on toppling the existing regime of Lawrence of Arabia and Reds.

Soderbergh’s two films do not play to the rules of genre. They’re selective rather than episodic: The Argentine documents Che’s campaign with Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement in Cuba from 1956 to 1958, interspersed with his scenes from official visit to New York in 1964 to address the United Nations; Guerilla traces the downward spiral of his campaign to repeat those earlier successes in Bolivia during 1967, culminating in his capture and execution by CIA-trained units of the Bolivian army.

The filmmaker’s approach is similar to the change in historical studies, where in recent decades the 'Great Man" theory of history has been replaced by a more nuanced understanding of underlying social forces. Soderbergh certainly has as his subject a great man, but the similarities of his actions in Cuba and then Bolivia, which draw virtually completely opposite results, suggest that there were factors at work greater than the considerable will and self-discipline of Che (played with gruff charisma by Benicio Del Toro).

Anyone expecting a sequential life story, or even the warm intimacy of Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 depiction of a young Che’s formative journey through Latin America, will be frustrated. Soderbergh and his screenwriters – Peter Buchman for The Argentine, Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen on Guerilla – are taken with action as example. The most important quality in the two revolutions, they suggest, is momentum. Che had it in Cuba, but not Bolivia, and the films likewise build up a considerable momentum through the accretion of detail observed in the field.

Soderbergh’s tacit judgment of Che is to suggest that he was only truly alive when he was engaged in fighting (at the U.N. the rifle is replaced by fierce rhetoric). It’s only near the close of The Argentine, for example, that Che mentions that you learn that Che has a wife and child back in Mexico City. The young soldier, Aleida (Maria Full of Grace’s Catalina Sandino Moreno), he reveals this to is briefly seen again at the opening of Guerilla – nine unseen years later she Che’s second wife and the mother of their passel of children.

There is little exposition or defining philosophical discussion in the two movies. Che, a young doctor born and raised in Argentina with a revolutionary ardour, has only know Cuban exile Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) for a few hours in Mexico City when he decides to accompany him back to Cuba for armed struggle (82 combatants arrived, 12 survived). The questions of an American journalist (Julia Ormond’s Lisa Howard), who interviewed Che during his American sojourn, frame The Argentine to a degree, but Che’s answers are guarded, meant for the historic record, and often subtly different to what the film reveals.

While the two films, both photographed by Soderbergh under his usual nom de plume of Peter Andrews, have a differing visual sensibility – a wide screen formalism for the successful campaign of The Argentine and a handheld, increasingly restrictive aesthetic for the defeat in The Guerilla – they’re both clearly Soderbergh’s work, in that they have a calmly evaluative feel, inquisitive editing and a detachment from politics.

The hero of Soderbergh’s very first feature, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, was James Spader’s Graham, a disaffected social refugee from Ronald Reagan’s America, and ever since his protagonists have reacted to personal situations and within insular milieus (Michael Douglas’ drug war czar in Traffic, a political animal, resigns because he realises his position is futile and secondary to his family’s needs). So Che is for the oppressed and against American imperialism, but he articulates it in brief, humanist terms. There are no searing speeches to the troops, no conversionary sermons.

There are only brief mentions of actions his detractors hold against Che – numerous execution warrants he signed during and after the Cuban revolution – and the movies are clear in having Che acknowledge them and their necessity to him under his guiding revolutionary principles. This approach to the man suits Del Toro, whose soulful expressiveness is best seen when it slowly shines through as opposed to being amplified. He humanises the character with a sly sense of humour and a workmanlike optimism, not even in the final days in Bolivia do the doubts show.

Perhaps his most revelatory dialogue comes at the very close, when he briefly converses with a Bolivian soldier guarding him the night before his execution. That’s typical of a cinematic diptych where the tenets of legend are present but never bowed down to: Che is an impressive field commander, but also a chronic, sometimes debilitated, asthmatic, while Fidel Castro is boisterous but also cunning and clear-headed. The Argentine and Guerilla, which rightly need to be seen together, are historical works that are focused on being in the moment (that also renders Matt Damon’s cameo intrusive and unnecessary).

Shot comparatively quickly, as international co-productions with independent funding, they make for an engrossing, immersive experience. They’re war films as a guide to philosophy and while they cleave away the great majority of Che Guevara’s life, they leave you with a sense of the man and his motivations. He’s been rescued, in an unexpected way, from the confines of a t-shirt design.