Toward the end of "The Argentine," the first half of Steven Soderbergh's epic-length, narrow-focus biopic of Ernesto Ché Guevara, a sequence captures in miniature how the revolution that overthrew Cuba's Batista government worked. Needing to take out some soldiers holed up in a church, Guevara's men find a row of houses connected to their target, then painstakingly knock down one wall after another. It takes forever and leaves rubble where homes once were, but the conviction that they're working for a greater good justifies both the exhaustion and the collateral damage. Change comes one house at a time, except when it doesn't. "The Argentine" portrays a relatively smooth-running revolutionary machine, but the film's second half, "Guerilla," shifts the focus to the stalled Bolivian revolution that ended in Guevara's capture and death in 1967. While Guevara hasn't lost his charisma or the conviction that Latin America needed the brand of liberation he helped bring to Cuba, he can never knock down the first wall.
In both halves, Soderbergh emphasizes observation over ideology with an eye toward the mundane details of life on the front lines of a revolution. Played as an undemonstratively magnetic figure by Benicio Del Toro, the Guevara of Che is driven by his convictions at the expense of seemingly every other consideration, and a bit lost when he isn't able to act on those convictions. "The Argentine" alternates between the events of the Cuban revolution and an early-'60s visit to the United Nations. Even wheezing in the throes of an asthma attack, Ché appears more in his element in the jungle than in the corridors of power, and as "The Argentine" builds toward a triumphant climax, the U.N. scenes provide a reminder that every revolution has to attend to the everyday business of restoring much of what it's overturned.
That's largely outside of Che's concern, however, as is the legitimacy of its hero's principles. Soderbergh portrays Guevara as a man who, having seen the damage done by the powers running Latin America, is comfortable only when working to topple the system. The film keeps a fascinated focus on what it takes to stay committed to that aim. In "The Argentine," the slow accumulation of details—Ché building an army, starting makeshift schools, killing deserters, and spreading Castro's message of agrarian reform—builds to a thrilling climax. In "Guerilla," that same attention to detail takes the film slowly into nightmare, and finally, into a kind of grace as an imprisoned Del Toro briefly explains his beliefs to his captors. "Cuba is progressing," he tells them, balancing radical optimism with the realism of what he's seen. By then, Soderbergh is more than four hours into a movie whose length makes it a challenge, but also creates an immersion in the frontline existence of its subject's life, a place filled with hope for a better tomorrow, but where the constant requirements of stealth and survival kill romantic idealism in its crib.