Steven Soderbergh's 4.5-hour cinematic study of two years in the life of Che Guevara is absolutely confounding - not least because it's hard even to figure out how to classify it. An eight-years-in-the-making dream project (financed in no small part by the director's populist Ocean's trilogy), the film premiered at the 2008 Cannes festival as an untitled workprint in two parts, the first of which covered the 1958-59 Cuban revolution, the second of which concerned Guevara's failed attempt to instigate a similar revolution in Bolivia in 1967, leading to his execution by the Bolivian army. At Cannes, Soderbergh implied that he intended that the two parts, individually to be titled The Argentine and Guerrilla, should be taken as separate films; but now, in its extremely limited US premiere (one week in New York and Los Angeles), the films have been recombined into a long-ass roadshow experience titled Che, with the individual films called simply Che: Part One and Che: Part Two. When the rest of the country gets to take a peek at the movies, they'll once again be separated and presumably given their original titles back.

Confused a little? Good. Still, the weird mystery behind Che's identity crisis (One film? A film and its sequel? Two films best considered separately?) is peanuts next to the matter of the film(s) it(them)self(selves). A lot of people had a lot of ideas about what a Che Guevara biopic would end up looking like, and Che manages to violate every last expectation, or at least every one of mine. Here's what it's not: a lefty filmmaker's mash note to a Communist superstar, a passionate tirade against a murderous enabler of dictators and thugs, a cautionary fable about the way that idealism curdles when it meets power. It is instead... my, what a thorny question that is!

For starters, we'd best figure out how to watch the film, and my own sense is that Soderbergh was right the first time around: The Argentine and Guerrilla, though tightly linked, are significantly different films: not only do the narratives of each film counter one another, the styles of the two films are distinct in nearly every possible way (for example, the two films aren't even in the same aspect ratio: The Argentine is 2.35:1, while Guerrilla is 1.85:1). And frankly, while I feel that The Argentine + Guerrilla is a more satisfying experience than just one film or the other could ever hope to be, I also feel that Che is actually a lesser experience than the individual films, given how much of its narrative, taken as a single object, is given over to repetition. I can phrase that more clearly: I'd much rather watch two 2.25-hour films than one 4.5-hour film, particularly a 4.5-hour film that stretches those hours out so very long.

But whichever of the possible iterations one watches, here's what one gets: a biopic with all the biopic sucked out of it, less the story of a man than the story of the actions he performs. Che isn't really about Che whatsoever, even though he appears in virtually all of The Argentine and a sizable majority of Guerrilla capably performed by Benicio Del Toro, in a performance that well-deserved the Best Actor award at Cannes. Instead, the films - especially The Argentine - are procedurals, about revolutionary warfare instead of police-work or surgery. That's why everyone who was convinced that Soderbergh was preparing a monumental love note to Guevara were barking up the wrong tree: the filmmaker isn't the least bit interested in explaining why Guevara did the things he did, or to whom; the focus is entirely on the what. This man designed and executed a revolution that installed Fidel Castro in power, and here is what that entailed: and the movie makes no moral judgments about that. Che is hardly a human at all, but a mechanism designed for recruiting and training guerrilla warriors.

In retrospect, none of this should be at all surprising: Soderbergh has always been tremendously fascinated with how things work, picking at his films like dead animals or broken watches, ending not just in things like the exposition-heavy caper films in the Ocean's trilogy, but also The Limey (a dissection of how its own narrative works) and Schizopolis (a dissection of the language of cinema in general), and pretty much everything else he's made, in one way or another. For my part, I'd freely call The Argentine the best Soderbergh film in almost a decade, since The Limey back in 1999: sure it's a bit chilly, but all of his films are, and not all of them make up for it with such a comprehensive study of their topic. It's hard to imagine a fuller version of what creating the Cuban Revolution must have looked like.
And "fuller" is exactly the right word: Soderbergh (working as his own DP under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews", as usual) makes better use of the anamorphic widescreen frame than just about any other 2008 film I can readily call to mind. Shot on the RED ONE digital camera, as well as anamorphic 16mm film (something that to the best of my knowledge has never been done in all the history of anamorphic lenses), the one thing that nobody could deny is that both halves of Che make for a pretty damn fine commercial for the RED Company: it is never less than absolutely fucking gorgeous, particularly in The Argentine, with its emphasis on wide vistas and stately camera angles, while Guerrilla uses much more cramped shots, a great many of which are handheld. Either way, the choice works perfectly for the mood of the piece, and to a certain degree the way each individual film was shot tells you a lot about what that film is: The Argentine, which ends in Guevara's triumph, is full of self-consciously epic photography, while Guerrilla, which document's Guevara's repeated inability to jump start a Bolivian revolution and ends in his death, is visually hectic and small. Between them, the two Che films showcase a great visual artist reaching something close to his apotheosis: if it's not quite as technically ambitious as Traffic or The Good German were, I would nevertheless maintain that Che is Soderbergh's most controlled moment as a cinematographer.

Of course, being Soderbergh films all but guarantees that these are technical marvels, with absolutely brilliant sound design, editing, and a strange and wonderful score by Alberto Iglesias (whom you might know as Pedro Almodóvar's favorite composer) that sounds nothing like the music for an epic biopic ought to sound (at times it hardly even sounds like music), but is nevertheless exactly what Che's music should sound like, once you've heard it.

As narratives? Well, I think I already poked at that a bit, but let's dig in a bit more: The Argentine is a particular success, balancing Guevara's year in Cuba with a short visit to the United Nations in 1964, where he meets many intellectuals who believe him a hero, despite fundamentally misunderstanding what motivates him (the New York scenes are the black-and-white, 16mm anamorphic sequences I mentioned). It's in these sequences that we start to see how the film, with all its focus on Guevara's actions and none on his thoughts, really is trying to present itself as a study of the man: because he is essentially a being of action, not of reflection. In the Cuban jungle, attending to the minutest details of revolutionary life, that is where Che Guevara wishes to be, because living as a revolutionary guerrilla is the only thing he can conceive of, so much so that he basically eradicates every trace of his life outside of the revolution. The halls of government are alien to him, and Del Toro perfectly captures, without any big actory moments, how very lost Guevara is when he actually has power: it's the violent pursuit, not the attainment, that gives his life shape.

In a way, this element prefigures where the story will go in Guerrilla, which was written first and initially intended to be the only part of the story before Soderbergh realised that it need more and more context, sort of like how Wagner's opera Siegfried's Death was gradually expanded into the four-part Ring of the Nibelung. Guerrilla is a distinctly lesser achievement than The Argentine; without the New York scenes, its narrative is much more straightforward but also considerably less compelling, and the scenes of training rebels in Bolivia, followed by scenes of violent shoot-outs with the authorities, followed by scenes of training, quickly attain a drowsy sameness to them. But the core of the drama is still more than a bit intriguing: Che has found that he is tired of being a member of government when his whole life has been devoted to the toppling of governments, and thus do we find that he's not really much of a Communist ideologue at all, at least not in Soderbergh's eyes; he just likes destroying things, and if doing so means that peasant farmers have a slightly easier time of it, then so much better. That seems to be the whole argument of Guerrilla, in which Guevara has given up on many of the ideals that he held in the first film, whether for expediency or just because he's even more dead inside, it's hard to say. Paradoxically, Guerrilla is also a bit more susceptible to the "Che as Tragic Figure" paradigm, particularly in his death scene, which Soderbergh absurdly films as a POV shot that fades to white, a bit of ham-fisted editorialising that shows up nowhere else in the 4.5 hours of Che. I'd still argue strongly against anyone who called a pro-Che film, but I'd also concede that it's a much harder argument to mount than it was with The Argentine.

Ultimately, the two films taken together (but not necessarily combined) serve one function: to take Che Guevara down from his position as icon (iconic hero or iconic villain, take your choice), and restore him to the position of a guy who did a thing, learned that doing it wasn't all that fulfilling, and then died trying to do it right the second time. Even if he is a man who has died inside, Del Toro's Che is still a man, not a god and not a monster. Unlike many historical epics - and if any film of the last 10 or 15 years earns the word "epic", it's absolutely Che - the protagonist here seems unaware that he is shaping history with his actions; he does them for largely personal reasons that we only occasionally glimpse. I can see audiences from across the spectrum being frustrated that Soderbergh and company haven't explained everything about Guevara in easily-digested biopic chunks, but as a resolute hater of the biopic, I'm not prepared to complain; and anyway, they've done something much more important, which is to separate the man from the hipster douchebag T-shirt. Late in the film, unseen journalist Lisa Howard (voiced by Julia Ormond) asks Guevara, in 1964, "How does it feel to be a symbol?" His response, through a translator, is another question: "A symbol of what?"

Ain't that just the question.
A film of this gargantuan ambition deserves a detailed report card, don't you think?
The Argentine: 9/10
Guerrilla: 8/10
The Argentine + Guerrilla: 9/10
Che - Roadshow Edition: 7/10