Havana, 1964 – Ernesto “Che” Guevara is giving an interview.
Cut to: Cuba, 1952 – Batista Seizes Cuba, announce newspaper headlines and newsreels.
Cut to: Mexico, 1955 – Guevara meets Fidel Castro, who is part of a small group of Cuban exiles planning to overthrow Batista’s dictatorship.
Cut to: New York, 1964 – Che, now a world-renowned political figure, is about to go address the U.N.
Cut to: Cuba, 1957 – as Guevara is still 398 miles and almost 2 years away from taking control of Havana with Castro…

…and we’re barely 10 minutes into Part One of “Che”, Steven Soderbergh‘s astonishingly ambitious masterpiece about the famous (infamous?) Argentine revolutionary. This first part depicts the key role Guevara played in the Cuban revolution, using an artfully epic approach most apparent in the way Soderbergh cuts back and forth between b&w cinéma vérité footage of Che during his aforementioned 1964 visit to New York and, in a more movie-movie style (and in color), the years of guerilla warfare in the late 1950s which led to the overthrowing of Batista.

As such, we get to enjoy a visceral, ground level war movie, while also getting to hear about Che’s philosophy and political views, i.e. the ideas that drove his actions during the Cuban revolution, as he speaks about them in hindsight. Peter Buchnan‘s screenplay deftly details the minutiae of life as a revolutionary (which doesn’t only involve direct combat, obviously), then it works as a character study of Guevara, a man fascinating in his contradictions. A doctor and a soldier; a humanist who believes in the greater good and a radical who doesn’t shy away from executing traitors; a thinker and a fighter; Che was all that and so much more…

Which brings us to Benicio Del Toro‘s towering performance, which both captures the iconic, mythic quality of Che and makes him deeply human and soulful, conveying great intelligence and violent determination in equal measures. “Che” is neither a hagiography or a conventional biopic; it’s a complex, ambiguous portrait that hits all the stops, but doesn’t feel the need to provide easy answers, preferring to let us assess the morality of its central character for ourselves.

Part Two begins in 1965, as Guevara seemingly vanishes from Cuba. A year later, he reemerges in Bolivia, planning to bring the revolutionary spirit of Castro’s Cuba to South America. Except that right from the start, this new bout of guerrilla warfare seems doomed to fail. Morale is bad among Che’s men, the local peasant population isn’t being cooperative, and the Bolivian government is getting help from operatives from the U.S., who don’t want another Cuba to happen… Basically, Guevara’s main mistake was thinking that he could catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

While the storytelling is more straightforward and the visual style more homogenous, in its one way, Part Two is as adventurous as the first half of “Che”. Relying less on dialogue (no after-the-fact commentary from Guevara here) and conveying a profound sense of dread, the last portion of the film has kind of a Herzog thing going on, what with most of it revolving around starving, half-mad men running to their death in the mountains of Bolivia…

Once again acting as his own cinematographer under the assumed name of Peter Andrews, Soderbergh has made a film that is consistently visually rich and captivating for 4+ hours. I’ve name-checked Herzog already, and I guess I could also draw some parallels to Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” and any other epic art film I’m not thinking of right now, but “Che” is very much its own thing. It would be a must-see if only for Del Toro’s dedication to his craft, for the endless subtleties of the storytelling or for Soderbergh proving to be even more of a virtuoso filmmaker than we thought he was. Heck, the amazing set pieces that are the Battle of Santa Clara (in Part One) and the Yuro Ravine Showdown (in Part Two) alone are worth the price of admission!