So the first thing that must be said is that this is an incredibly ambitious project – rarely is a biographical film this detailed and this long. Only in TV now could you get this level of depth into a the subject of a person’s life. The fact that the film exists is an accomplishment in itself.
I am not a fan of revolutions. I am, for the most part, opposed to violent resistance to government and violence in an attempt to change governments, I grant that there are situations – there have been situations throughout history – which can only be responded to with some level of violence. But for me violence is always the last resort when it comes to social change, not just because I want fewer people to die but because I think the use of violence opens a “moral door” if you will, which walking through can lead to worse things. But I have also a philosophical objection to revolutions: I do not believe that anyone can reinvent society from the ground up. Humans are adaptable and pliable but there are some truths to the human condition which cannot be overcome and, to the best of my knowledge, have never been overcome. Every revolution in history that I am aware of has failed to reinvent society. Some conditions have been changed and sometimes the lives of the worst off have indeed been improved. But the nature of human society has never been irrevocably shifted by revolutions, geography and technology (and even in those senses in limited ways). So I feel that revolutions are pointless because they will, inherently, never achieve their ultimate aims. In the meantime, lots of people die.
I tell you this because this movie tacitly and explicitly celebrates a revolutionary. And I do not endorse this view, no matter how many individual acts by Guevera towards people may well e worth celebrating. But I’d like to talk about the movie as a movie, rather than a political statement concerning the validity of revolutionary violence.
IMDB divides the film into two parts which is, I believe, how it was released theatrically (at least for wide release). A little bit like Kill Bill, Sodebergh has chosen to make fairly drastic changes between the two parts, the first of which is similar to Traffic in the way in which it is presented stylistically, and the second of which is considerably more traditional from a filmmaking perspective. (That is the only way in which my Kill Bill comparison makes any sense.) The result does make it feel like two different movies, which is for the best if you are watching the parts apart, like I did.
Soderbergh, as usual, treats his audience like adults: there is very little attempt to explain what is happening on the large scale, beyond the opening title sequences, which treat the audience like they don’t know anything, and the text that occasionally fixes us in time and space. The story really is about Guevera and not so much about the Cuban Revolution or the other conflicts he was involved in. It’s a curious choice but one which I think works as cinema (as opposed to history) and sort of works as biography, as much as film can.
This film is idiosyncratic, as all of Soderbergh’s films are, especially if taken as a whole (given the massive stylistic differences between the two parts). Though it is at times episodic, it feels very much like a labour of love, and a serious attempt to capture one of the most famous people of the 20th century in a way in which a t-shirt and a nickname have utterly failed to do. It’s the kind of film I watch and respect – for its existence, for its clear use of film technique to enhance the story – though I could never ever love it, for the reasons stated above. I think it is well worth watching whatever you may think of Guevera or the conflicts he was involved in. (Though I would say that it helps to have watched The Motorcycle Diaries first, if you want a portrait of the man’s life as a whole, as this film doesn’t care at all about that part of his life.)