Let's begin with one sequence in the two-part biopic Che, and then build the review around its meaning. The sequence happens in the middle of the second half of the first film,
The Argentine (the second film is called Guerrilla). The sequence is The Argentine in its essence. What exactly is the first part of this brilliant biopic about? It is exactly about this: A line of Cuban freedom fighters under the command of Che Guevara, played with religious dedication by Benicio Del Toro, low-crawl out of the jungle and stop at the border of a clearing. In the near distance is the boxy bulk of an army base. Night is falling, the air is cooling, grass gently stirs in the breeze.
Inside the three-story building, the enemy waits and watches the darkening jungle. One of the freedom fighters rises above the grass and aims a bazooka at the army base. The man next to him loads the weapon and covers his ears. The trigger is pulled. The missile flies across the clearing and completely misses the building—useless trees explode and burn. The enemy immediately returns fire. The freedom fighters open fire. The bazooka is reloaded, the trigger is pulled a second time, the missile flies and... almost hits the building. The windows of the base are alive with the fire of machine guns. Frustrated, Che rises, grabs the bazooka, places it on his sturdy shoulder, and aims—bullets zip by his exposed head and body. This is the moment of danger that defines the hero. The bazooka is loaded, Che pulls the trigger, the missile makes a direct hit, and a perfect ball of fire consumes the whole base. Concrete crumbles, black smoke rises, and Che stands and commands the freedom fighters to attack. The end of the sequence.
This is The Argentine. Why? Because what the sequence captures is Che at his very best. He cannot be stopped, bullets can only miss him, the enemy can only run from or be absorbed by this man (this superstar) who radiates not only military power but also moral power. He knows he is right and the enemy is wrong, and he imposes this strong moral sense on his weak troops. Again and again, they are reminded (and also remind themselves) that they are fighting for the realization of an idea or, more concretely, an ideal society—one that protects the rights of the poor, shares its wealth fairly, and offers health care and education to all. Che's war in Cuba is not about revenge but the creation of a new world. It is precisely this that makes him, as Sartre once said, "the most complete human being of our age": He is a man whose actions and ideas are one. What he says is what he does; what he does is what he says. This moment of self-perfection is the subject matter of The Argentine.
Though suffering from coughs and fits, Del Toro's asthmatic Che expresses a mode of being that is poetic. And the poetry of his body corresponds with the poetry of the revolutionary moment and the film itself. "Insurrection is an art," wrote the first Trotskyite—and, as with all arts, insurrection has its masters. The Argentine is, on the one hand, about a master at the peak of his art, Che, and, on the other hand, about the director, Steven Soderbergh, mastering his art, cinema. As the master of film criticism, Amy Taubin, wrote in Film Comment, Che "places [Soderbergh] in the ranks of the masters." Indeed, Soderbergh finally has a masterpiece, and it dwarfs even the best in his body of work—Traffic, The Limey, Out of Sight.
The Argentine begins with poetry. We have no idea how these fragmented images fit. They seem to have no beginning or end. We see Che in Mexico City meeting Fidel Castro, we see him in the jungle removing a bullet from a freedom fighter's backside. We see the sea, the waves, the blue of the sky. We see trees swaying in the sun. We see the United Nations. We see Che at a party in a glamorous Manhattan apartment. We see a beautiful American blonde interviewing him. The images in New York and Mexico City mimic vintage black-and-white footage; the images of the Cuban jungle, villages, and towns are captured in ripe and rich color. And from this confusion of dates, colors, and locations rises the steady discourse of the revolution. Everyone is talking about the importance of modernizing the country, building schools, raising living standards. This discourse dominates the exchanges in The Argentine.
In Guerrilla, however, the discourse of liberation dies down and is replaced by Alberto Iglesias's minimal and haunting score. Also gone is the poetry, and what we see is the raw prose of a man's decline. Whereas life is the ultimate subject of The Argentine, death is the final subject of Guerrilla. Che arrives in Bolivia, connects with the local freedom fighters, constructs a plan for the revolution, and then things start falling apart. The peasants are not supportive, nor is the regional Communist Party. To make matters worse, the CIA is giving the dictator military assistance. Everything that went right in Cuba is everything that goes wrong in Bolivia.
In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlow says the only thing that justified the brutal realities of colonialism was the idea—the idea of progress, modernization, civilization. This idea was appropriated by the liberation movements of the second part of the 20th century, taking the form of scientific socialism. In The Argentine, we see the idea spread and seize a nation; in the second film, Guerrilla, we see it reduced to just one man, Che. The idea is shot nine times and dies.