Divided in two parts and clocking in at close to five hours, Steven Soderbergh' s bio-pic Che is nothing short of epic. The film is as much an ode to the life of Ernesto "Che" Guevara as it is a test of the viewers endurance. While Che was broken into two parts for the theatrical release, it was really meant to be viewed as one whole film.
The first part, dubbed The Argentine, is set in the latter half of the 1950's and looks at everything from the first meeting of Ernesto "Che" Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) and Fidel Castro (Demain Bichir) to the two men forming their own rebel army. Within a two year span the men note only mobilized a high functioning army but also received support from the civilian population as well. Che and Fidel surprised many by toppling the regime of dictator Fulgencio Batista, who had the backing of the United States of America.
The second part, The Guerrilla, is about Ernesto's struggles to bring his revolution through the rest of Latin America. Set in Bolivia in 1965, Guevara forms a small guerrilla army made up of Cubans and Bolivians in an attempt to overthrow the Bolivian military rule. As the years go on, Che's uphill battle is much more difficult this time around. Lack of supplies and fewer dedicated troops cause major road blocks for the movement. Not to mention that Bolivian army is supported by the United States, who have learned much from the events in Cuba.
Although it is meant to be viewed as one film, the picture has two vastly different tones that do not co-exist well with each other. The Argentine is by far the most interesting part of the whole production. While it is conventional in form, Soderbergh captures both the essence of Che's character and the massive scope of the Cuban revolution. If The Argentine had been the only film I would not hesitate to list it was one of, if not the best, films of the year. Everything works so well in this section. Benicio Del Toro gives one of the best performances of his career. Del Toro makes sure that Che's humanity is always at the forefront while still managing to convey the fierce, and calculating, warrior in the battlefields. Steven Soderbergh's skilled and confident direction, not to mention his wisely contained battle sequences, only help to elevate Benicio's performance even further. Despite its length, Che: The Argentine feels like a complete film. I actually liked it more than Walter Salles' film from a few years back, The Motorcycle Diaries. While that focussed on Ernesto as a doctor, this film provides insight into the Guevara as a whole (e.g. The man, the doctor, the warrior, etc).
By time you reach The Guerrilla half of the film, you are already full from the delicious meal The Argentine served. I understand the need to have the Bolivia elements as it provides a complete look at the path of Che's revolution quest. Unfortunately there is not too much that we really learn in this section. The first half already documented the struggles of trying to raise and army and keep them on course. We already say the lengths which the government armies will go to destroy the rebel/guerrilla groups. We also got a good understanding of how the local peasants are often the pawns in the middle. I guess the only difference in Che: The Guerrilla is that the odds were stacked against Ernesto from the start. Which is probably why Soderbergh opted for a more meditative pacing in this section. Sadly this decision hinders all the wonderful moments that The Argentine provided. What was once interesting and fast moving now becomes bloated and plodding. As the second half is essential to see the full scope of both Che and Soderbergh's visions, I cannot shower the film with the same praise I would have if the film had ended with just The Argentine. I still think Che should be seen for both its historical relevance and Benicio Del Toro's fantastic performance. It is just as same that the second half could not live up to its predecessor.