In Cuba, Guevara became a famous leader. Years later, he disappeared and went in secret to Bolivia, where he was reborn as Ramon. Guevara is a paradoxical celebrity—over the last half-century, his recognition has become massive while his politics have dissipated to a hazy battle cry of rebellion. (Luis Lopez and Trisha Ziff’s fantastic documentary Chevolution is a great survey of his t-shirt fame.) In truth, Guevara was a brute and a hero. The question is balance—do his crimes outweigh his convictions? If Soderbergh and screenwriter Peter Buchman have an opinion, they’re holding it close to the vest. This isn’t a biography—it’s even less of one than Oliver Stone’s stone-skimming W.—Che’s a nature show where Guevara is the lion.
What Soderbergh does in his two films is straightforwardly, unsentimentally gaze at a revolution that works and a revolution that doesn’t. In Cuba, Guevara struts through the trees and peasants follow. In Bolivia, he struts through the trees and they turn him in to the authorities. What’s the difference? We’re not sure, just an intractable collision of a few fractions more of suspicion and apathy and better government PR. Without our benefit of history, Guevara in Bolivia doesn’t see the futility of his fight. He’s dreaming of a Bolivia that the poorest Bolivians don’t—or can’t—see. Wandering through the jungle losing members and morale like a flower sheds petals, he’s taken on such a long term view of utopia that he’s barely even angry at his failure.
Individually, it’s hard to know what to make of Soderbergh’s sprawling film project. You can’t see the meaning for the endless pans of guns and trees. Together, the films don’t rouse much more feeling than a vague frustration at wanting so much and getting so little—Guevara and the audience both wants more passion from what surrounds us. As the tragedy, the second film feels deeper. It’s open for us to ask ourselves questions about whether Guevara made a better myth than revolutionary, and answer it ourselves on the ride home. But the dispassion that works is his death, an anti-climax that aches for being so far beneath his dignity. We don’t wish him pain, but the glory of Braveheart’s drawn and quartered misery is the heroic Hollywood ending we’re used to making our hands ball in fists. Instead, what lingers is the film’s one dip into poetic imagery: the sight of Guevara stuck on a horse that won’t walk, pulling on it until he collapses.