Though Mickey Rourke's work in The Wrestler was nearly as deep and rich as vintage Brando, and Sean Penn was extraordinary in Milk, the most amazing "performance" of 2008 was that of Benicio del Toro as Che -- which, for my dough, was also the movie of the year.
I place the word "performance" in quotes because we are never for a moment conscious of del Toro as actor: he inhabits Che Guevara from the very first frame of the 4-hour movie to the last -- from the initial shot of the revolutionary's boots to the beautifully counter-posed final shot, when those same boots encase the feet of his corpse. Del Toro functions here not only as actor but as co-producer, having clearly worked with director Steven Soderbergh to design a movie that, in every way, is every bit as revolutionary as its subject.
From their underlying decision to omit all back story -- we have no "young Che" romance here, no motorcycle jaunts, not even the compelling tale of how a bourgeois medical student graduated from treating the ills of exploited peasants to attacking the deeper roots of their abuse -- through their scrupulous documentary style, and even incorporating the visual attack itself (shot on high-quality video), Soderbergh and del Toro conspire in the service of the dramatic law that "action is character." We don't observe the firefights; we participate in them. We don't analyze Che's tactical decisions; we exult in the victories they create -- and suffer their defeats -- along with his fellow cadres.
And what makes Che the best movie of the year--in fact, of the past several years -- is the creative rapport between del Toro, Soderbergh and the cinematographer, "Peter Andrews" -- which is actually Soderbergh's own nom de camera , since he's the only major director working today who shoots his own footage. Soderbergh makes brilliant use of the freedoms afforded by this new video equipment, swooping in and out of shifting battlefronts, whether the battles are raging in decaying urban ruins or lush Caribbean jungles. (If nothing else, this incredibly versatile director should have earned a nomination for Best Cinematography.)
First shown in theatres as an old-fashioned four-hour "roadshow" -- the way costume epics like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia were run, with an intermission -- Che can now be viewed in two discrete parts. Many critics seem to have praised Part One, which details what must be the most astonishing military tale of the 20th century -- how a group originally composed of less than twenty ragged young men, equipped only with hand-me-down rifles and a vision, overthrew a US-backed military dictatorship -- and completely dismissed Part Two, which shows Che's misguided and doomed attempt to stage a parallel revolution in Bolivia.
But for me, Part Two is even more powerful than Part One. Staying true to the screenplay's elegant strategy of withholding all "psychological" information in favor of finely-grained in-the-moment action, in Part Two we realize early on that Che knows this Bolivian battle is a total long-shot, and that he will probably die in the effort. But as we watch him soldier on, against his own failing health, against the betrayals of campesinos he is trying to protect -- perhaps even against the nature of human society itself -- we learn more about the soul of a revolutionary in defeat than we ever could in victory. And it's here that del Toro's genius reaches its full, radiant flower.
Of course, we don't have to wonder why del Toro and Soderbergh and the movie itself were not nominated for Academy Awards, and I doubt they expected them when they were creating the work.
But whatever you call it -- and though "performance" seems way too stilted, I can't find a better word for it -- Benicio del Toro has created a screen character that should be honored not only this year, but studied by actors for decades to come. And with his fellow revolutionary Steven Soderbergh he has, against all odds, made a movie that will excite, infuriate, and ultimately inspire viewers all over the world.