Benicio Del Toro might have been just right for the lead in Terence Malick’s long-gestating Che Guevara project. It’s all in the eyes: Del Toro, like all of Malick’s protagonists, doesn’t see what is right in front of him, the material present, and instead has the look of one always seeing the unobtainable, something deep within himself and beyond the present moment. But Steven Soderbergh—who ended up getting to Che first via his two-part film written by Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen—is more after the actor’s physical presence and his posture, rarely mining the faraway depth of the eyes. Benicio Del Toro’s removed, bodily performance as Che goes hand in hand with Soderbergh’s approach in general: a distance from the subject—both Che as a person and “Che” as an idea, or a phenomena. Che takes the form of pseudo-journalism, the illusion of neutral detachment and accurate reporting.
This pseudo-journalism is not the same as objectivity. In fact, apropos of Paul Newman’s recent death, the main point of reference for the first half of Che, titled The Argentine and shot digitally in very wide screen and on location, is Otto Preminger’s mega-production, Exodus (1960). The two films share a great deal in common superficially, from their road-show like expanses (Soderbergh’s film being a four hour, twenty minute two-part total), to their underscoring of unique on-location realism (Preminger in Israel, Soderbergh in a variety of Latin countries, as well as Spain), to Alberto Iglesias’s wonderful pastiche of late 50s, early 60s movie soundtracks, and finally to the films’ revolutionary subjects. But more than anything else, Soderbergh tries to emulate Preminger in approach.
Preminger strove to present his characters and their situations seemingly without taking sides—the force of this attempt at telling a story with an even stance is always apparent, often alarmingly so. Soderbergh, in The Argentine, affects a distance which barely presents anything from any side, and the result is utterly lazy. It is a disposable, inconsequential attitude towards the film’s subject, where whole stretches of the film could be shorn with minimal impact, the process of Che’s involvement in the Cuban revolution rendered as colorless and indistinguishable, the connection between scenes, between words, and between actions not only unclear, but more critically, unmemorable. The only matter of any importance to The Argentine is Che’s participation—though not necessarily his role—in the Cuban revolution. He certainly was there all right, though what he did precisely and how he did it the film seems to take pains to keep imprecise and at arms’ length.
If The Argentine recalls Preminger and Exodus, the second part of Che, called Guerilla and detailing the man’s failed attempt to move the revolution to Bolivia, recalls Merrill’s Marauders (1962), though certainly not Samuel Fuller’s brute forcefulness as a filmmaker. A more accomplished film, though to a degree less interesting because less baffling than the indeterminate angle of attack that The Argentine takes, the second half of Soderbergh’s film grasps more firmly the physical sense of guerilla life. As in the Fuller film, Soderbergh’s revolutionary soldiers become bogged down and beset by the jungle they live and work in, and the filmmaker genuinely gives the story a sense of what it’s like to sit around, dirty and weary, so close to the center of a cause that indeed the sense of what one is fighting for or against is almost immediately lost.
This physical grounding lends Guerilla a sensibility, and a more cohesive sense of unity on a scene by scene basis, something that the first half of Che profoundly lacks. There is also, crucially, a firmer and more cinematically defined inside and outside to what Che is doing (though the man himself, aside from how he looks when artfully reposed, is a mystery). The threats to the revolution as a whole and the men fighting it in particular are far clearer, even if mostly kept off-screen—and are all the more powerful for being so. The Argentine, by contrast, is all men posing before moving onward, anonymously. This constant motion and abbreviated hints at revolutionary rhetoric give the filmmaking the illusion of functionality, simply laying out for us the schema, with generous discretion and limited coloring. But the reality is that the film is too discrete, too respectful, too mindful, and refuses to commit to any angle or necessity, any energy, emotion or idea. Guerilla gains some ground back, if only by showing soldiers shucking corn, getting disheartened by a lack of response from the Bolivians outside the jungle, and seeing their faith lost in the physical deterioration of the asthmatic Che. But it is mostly too little too late. Che squandered the spirit of its subject at the onset, and for over four hours the film suffers most horribly from lacking the vitality and the intelligence of something so basic and so necessary both for the subject itself, but really for film as a medium.