Half the Picture 

In Part One of epic film Che, Soderbergh shows one side of the coin

Director Steven Soderbergh has proven a great friend of the little man. Whether telling the story of a woman's battle against the legal system (Erin Brockovich), a border cop's fight against the drug trade (Traffic) or a group of misfits engaged in a casino heist (Oceans 11 franchise), he's a master of spinning legends out of ordinary people. But by the time he died, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the medical doctor turned revolutionary, was already legendary.

It was Guevara's unswerving support of the "everyman," the underserved, taken to violent extremes that gained him both the admiration and contempt of so many, making him one of the most polarizing political figures in history. Despite his legacy as a revolutionary icon—he was named one of Time magazine's top 100 most influential people of the 20th century—his commitment to the common cause makes the two-part biopic Che a fitting entry in Soderbergh's oeuvre.

More than 40 years after his death in 1967, Guevara's image and ideals remain a visible part of the countercultural landscape. It's a ballsy subject to cover, with global opinion of the man still divided between saint and sinner.

The first film, Che: Part One (aka The Argentine), narratively ping-pongs between Guevara's (Benicio del Toro) 1964 deposition before the United Nations and his involvement in the Cuban Revolution, the contrasting timelines alternately filmed in archival black-and-white and riotous color. A dense, talk-heavy elucidation of the principles that would eventually lead Guevara to command guerrilla forces in both South America and Africa as seen in Part Two, the film punctuates these musings with staccato bursts of action as Che and his men advance through the jungles of the Sierra Maestra mountains toward Havana.

Clocking in at 137 minutes and scripted almost entirely in Spanish, it's a long and sometimes difficult slog, but clearly the story has such a wealth of nuance and detail so as to preclude a shorter running time. Demian Bichir plays the authoritative and almost fatherly Fidel Castro with excellent support from Catalina Sandino Moreno as Aleida and Julia Ormond as American journalist Lisa Howard.

Given the diverse and divided material that has been written both about the Cuban Revolution and Guevara himself, Che could have been scripted as either indictment or vindication of his actions and beliefs. As his story is still intimately linked with present-day politics, the ink has not yet dried on history's account of Guevara. There is no global consensus on whether he will be remembered as a hero or a villain. Soderbergh and del Toro—who also serves as one of the film's producers —choose to portray him sympathetically, a friend of the underclass and a firm proponent of education, his ruthlessness and cunning used in service of the people, while he himself is worn down by self-doubt and bouts with chronic asthma. Del Toro, who at age 42 is already older than Guevara was at the time of his death, has stated in interviews that he eventually stopped researching for the role because he felt ill-equipped to play Guevara in a universally recognizable way. It's a stunning performance, beautifully framed by Peter Andrew's cinematography and a spare but precisely suited score by Alberto Iglesias, but ultimately pictures a man who is as yet undefined. When Che: Part Two (The Guerilla), opens this weekend, audiences will be able to view this sprawling, ambitious and brilliant cinematic diptych in its entirety. In Part One, Soderbergh, no stranger to politically and socially controversial filmmaking, has created a colored but compelling masterwork.

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