Che, is interspersed with black-and-white flash-forward footage of Che Guevara visiting New York in 1964. Asked, in an interview that takes place late in the film, whether he's comfortable being a symbol of revolution, Che (Benicio Del Toro) says yes, he is, symbols inspire. This is exactly the problem one goes into Che expecting: "symbolism," is a Che T-shirt, and what it actually symbolizes is vapidity rather than action, and an abstracting of the revolutionary ideal, sidestepping the complexity of the political and moral issues at stake. In coming out pro-Che T-shirt, Soderbergh is telling us something we've maybe already realized by this point in the movie: Che is essentially apolitical.
Made up of two compare-and-contrast war movies, the aforementioned Argentine and
Guerilla, about the ill-fated late-60s Bolivian campaign where our hero
became immortal by dying, Che is, says its director, an investigation
into the "conditions" in which revolution takes place. By "conditions,"
Soderbergh mostly means military tactics.
Those conditions seem pertinent in Guerilla, which deals in less of a vacuum with matters of factionalism and financing, with counterinsurgency tactics and the (often either clumsy or forceful) battle for hearts and minds. That The Argentine is a widescreen epic while Guerilla is shot hand-held in a more constricted frame has been frequently mentioned by other critics; less has been said about the less obviously "this directorial choice represents this thematic element" bits in the latter film — verdant Cuba becomes mountainous, drought-and-deluge Bolivia, with Indian peasants scrapping out a more isolated subsistence than the engaged Cuban populace, or else caught up in the sprawlingly urban capital; the whole thing feels meaner and more mercenary, which it was.
But the conditions for armed insurrection and the conditions for revolution aren't the same thing, and Soderbergh never quite opens out from the latter into the former. (Despite moments in Guerilla when Che's campaign seems to liaise with specific microcosms of the larger social fabric, and Cold War geopolitics and proxy wars.)
"The Revolution" has just started, Che warns an underling at the triumphant climax of The Argentine, but he and the movie skip off to fight new battles almost immediately thereafter. The (true-to-life) incident that leads us into the intermission portents a more critical look at the long, hard work of revolution; the promise isn't kept.
What about governance? What about the implementation of Marxist principles? A movie like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which seems more and more to be one of the more crucial films of recent years, found the struggle to be inextricably linked to the social and political ideals informing it — and, for that matter, offered a genuinely ambiguous account of ideologically pure acts of violence. (In The Argentine, Che executes a little self-critical justice on some raping, pillaging deserters — like Rumsfeld's bad apples, they don't reflect any larger truths about the uniform they wear.) (It's possible that a more difficult scene was cut between the film's Cannes premiere and here; Soderbergh awkwardly dodged J. Hoberman's question about the scene at his press conference.) This weighing of the rough justice of symbolic murder is an important thing for us to think about when we think about Che (my god The Motorcycle Diaries is a vapid movie), and for that matter the revolutionary ideal in general.
Arguably, the very rare acts of popular self- defence committed by Lavalas partisans are examples of what Walter Benjamin called "divine violence": they should be located "beyond good and evil", in a kind of politico-religious suspension of the ethical. Although we are dealing with what can only appear as "immoral" acts of killing, one has no political right to condemn them, because they are a response to years, centuries even, of systematic state and economic violence and exploitation.That's Slavoj Zizek, from a recent book review. I present it without comment, thus one-upping Soderbergh, who neither comments on nor presents the intellectual Left's debate over political violence. (Cameo mentions of Sartre and Bertie Russell are the only signs of Che's existence in a larger, distinctly un-proletariat conversation.)