I don't know how much Steven Soderbergh re-edited his two films about Che since I saw them last May at Cannes, but they felt a good deal different to me as I watched them again earlier tonight. I find myself now at odds with my initial thoughts about the films, where I preferred Che: Part One (a "complex blend of time periods and visual styles that feels the most fully formed") to Part Two ("almost stridently undramatic, a series of sad things happening without warning or context to a bunch of people we don't know very much about"). Though Part Two, also known as Guerilla, remains an unconventionally bleak picture, its far more coherent and far more well-shot than I'd previously given it credit for.
Still, these are not easy films to digest or to enjoy, particularly since they're intended to be viewed in one gargantuan 250-plus minute sit that includes very few moments that audiences accustomed to traditional Hollywood biopics have come to expect. They seem engineered to antagonize audiences: Soderbergh has said that he tried "to find the scenes that would happen before or after the scene that you would typically see in a movie like this," in order to defy the viewer's expectations and he succeeds. Part One charts the incremental progress of the Cuban Revolution, builds to the strategic triumph of the Battle of Santa Clara and then abruptly ends just before Che's forces arrive in Havana. In the final scene, Che pulls over some joyriding troops who've celebrated their victory by boosting a cherry-red Chevy and sends them back to Santa Clara. The soldiers don't get to reap the spoils of the war, and neither does the audience for having sat through it. Instead, they're invited to undertake another two hours of guerilla warfare minutia -- building camps, preparing food, attacking your enemies -- and this time there isn't even a happy ending. Where most would have asked why -- why Che join Castro, why he left Cuba for Bolivia, why his second campaign failed as spectacularly as the first succeeded -- Soderbergh only asks how.
Especially on first viewing, Guerilla is frustrating; but then, the picture is fundamentally about frustration. Guevara goes to Bolivia and attempts to do the things he did in Cuba there, but finds all his battle-tested tactics outdated and unsuccessful. Though he refuses to admit it to his dwindling forces, the walls are closing in, and the frame literally does the same; Soderbergh shot Part Two in 1:85 compared to the Cinemascope dimensions of Part One. All the colors of the first part, the lush greens of the Cuban jungle, are washed out of the second. Panoramic crane shots are replaced by bumpy hand-held camerawork (most of it by Soderbergh himself). The cumulative effects of scene after scene of Guevara's forces getting surprised by government troops and fleeing with heavy casualties takes a wearing toll on the audience. Why does Soderbergh repeat himself? Why doesn't he cut in another narrative to leaven the tedium, as he does during Part One? The reason, I suspect, is to have us empathize with Guevara's own refusal to deviate from his path, to give us a small taste of how it felt to walk in the man's shoes during those final days.
A critic of Soderbergh could argue that he makes only two kinds of movies: self-consciously cool ones (Out of Sight, The Limey, the Ocean's series) and self-consciously cold ones (Solaris, The Good German) and Che, which is certainly the latter, does not provide a counter-argument. And yet there is something here, and on that second viewing I felt that even more strongly than the first, where I largely admired Soderbergh's gumption and rejected the execution. By focusing on the day-to-day process of revolution, Soderbergh has revealed the human being beneath the t-shirt icon, despite the fact that he barely interrogates Guevara's character. Regardless of what you think of what he did - regardless, even of what he thought about what he did - Che Guevara was a person whose small, individual actions had enormous cumulative consequences. Soderbergh's Che says here is a man. He did something incredible. And here is how he did it.