Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is filthy, his hair matted, his beard unkempt. Wounded and weak from loss of blood, he looks pale. His Bolivian captor appears cocky but also surprised: he and his men have charge of the most famous self-proclaimed revolutionary of his time, the inspiring leader of a guerrilla band who has been attacking the Bolivian army for months. Now, assessing his prize, the captain makes a pronouncement both mundane and astute: “A lot of people will want a photograph of you.”
It’s 1967, and Che is about to be executed. As he is imagined near the end of Che, he is self-aware and gallant, defiant but also troubled. After a brief effort to persuade one young guard to untie him, he seems resigned to his fate: “Shoot him below the neck,” orders the captain, presumably to preserve the iconic face for photos, proof of life and death, and to be able to deny the execution itself: Che, the official story goes, died of combat injuries sustained in the hills near La Higuera. Steven Soderbergh’s massive accounting of Guevara’s career as a revolutionary doesn’t mention suspicions that the U.S., in particular the CIA, had anything to do with the decision to execute Che, though it does indicate that Bolivian President René Barrientos (Joaquim de Almeida) was working with U.S. supervisors to train his own special forces. As this work is modeled after “similar operations in Vietnam,” as one U.S representative puts it, the film makes clear enough its insidious nature.
In its version of Che’s death, the movie also makes clear its reverence for the man and legend, despite his errors and its exploitations. Following a shot of his corpse carried on a stretcher, the film cuts to an earlier image, Che on a boat en route from Mexico to Cuba, where he spends the first half of this four-hour-plus epic, helping Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) and his brother Raul (Rodrigo Santoro) to overthrow General Fulgencio Batista. The boat’s lively blue wake behind him, Che looks in this frame to be full of hope and energy, his expression thoughtful and figure youthful, much like the most famous photographs of him — disseminated so widely and for so many years after his death.
In an abstract sense, the film is about the dissemination of Che Guevara the icon, as it is also the saga of Che refashioned. Each half is based on a book by Guevara (Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War and The Bolivian Diary), but neither takes a single perspective or tells one story. Taken apart, the halves suggest a conventional narrative split (say, rise and fall, promise and failure), but together they form a beguiling sort of disorder. Shot by Soderbergh (under his cinematographer’s alias, “Peter Andrews”), the film’s imagery is precisely meaningful: handheld and raucous for battles, observational during political discussions; framed by mirrors, windows and doorways; black-and-white and archivalish as he speaks before the United Nations in 1964; distractingly close — on his beard, on his cigar — when he’s interviewed by journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond).
His answers to her questions provide a glimpse of his social and political thinking, and especially the ideals that will be only partly realized. “Men with the desire to fight,” he explains, “who also understand why they are fighting regardless of who they are fighting, whether under the command of military geniuses or those of normal intelligence, fighting with clubs or with machine guns that fire 30 rounds a minute, these men will put themselves in the most advantageous conditions for fighting and they will triumph.” In Cuba, the struggle is deemed successful; in Bolivia, ambition outstrips pragmatism. “I need peasants,” he tells a comrade, but he is unable to win over the locals to fight for what he sees as their own “freedom.”
This incomprehension is a function, the film suggests, of multiple forces, from government propaganda to undisciplined fighters to Che’s own distance from the people he means to help. Though he appears repeatedly as a doctor — treating infections and injuries, checking children’s mouths and eyes — he is more often crouched in brush or leaning against trees (gasping from his chronic asthma), endeavoring to lead his rebels into a future they can’t see as well as he does.
The film cuts back and forth in time, suggesting the many fragments that comprise Guevara’s story, as well as the impossibility of arranging them into a linear chronology. As he and Fidel put together the Cuban campaign, he is repeatedly referred to as “Argentino,” the foreigner, thinker, and medical doctor who pledges himself to the revolutionary cause. This first half of the film, which ends more or less in 1959, when Batista falls, includes as well his visit to New York, his exhortations against American imperialism (which “has led people to believe that peaceful coexistence is the exclusive right of the worlds most powerful nations”), his understanding of commercial promotion for a cause like his (asked whether he wants makeup for the interview, he says no, then changes his mind: “Maybe a little powder”).
This vision of himself — as advocate and product — is of a piece with Fidel’s self-image (as military leader, as director of men and systems), but it is also true to Che’s complicated legacy. The movie acknowledges his personal passions, especially in his political pronouncements, and also in his briefly noted romances with wife and fellow guerrilla Aleida (Catalina Sandino Moreno), with whom he has five children, mostly off-screen, and with the less easily delineated comrade Tania (Franka Potente), but it doesn’t do much to parse his personal demons, his conflicts and desires, his relationships beyond their surfaces.
At once an historical figure and emblem, he resists reduction. As a sign of the guerrilla fighter as filmmaker (see: Amy Taubin’s much-quoted Film Comment piece), this Che struggles against history and time, expectations and projections, his own body and his own myth. Ever aware of his own small place in the stories he helps to forge, he is at once egotistical and humble. As he advises a young acolyte, “Little boy, no one is so necessary or indispensable in this life. Don’t go thinking that you are indispensable.” As his image looms, he remains aptly cryptic.