Oliver Stone, Visiting Points 'South' With A Few Buds

Oliver Stone, Hugo Chavez

hide captionThe Odd Couple: Filmmaker Oliver Stone (left) caused quite a stir at the Venice Film Festival when he invited Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — and an attendant posse of security guards — to the premiere of his documentary South Of The Border.

Jose Ibanez

South Of The Border

  • Director: Oliver Stone
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 118 minutes
Not Rated.

With: Oliver Stone, Raul Castro, Hugo Chavez, Cristina Kirchner, Nestor Kirchner, Evo Morales, Fernando Lugo, Rafael Correa, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

Oliver Stone begins South of the Border, his documentary look at left-leaning Latin American politics, with an example of the empty-headed media coverage for which he intends his film as a corrective — Gretchen Carlson and her Fox & Friends cohorts pronouncing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a drug addict as they gigglingly confuse coca with cocoa.

Say what you will about political bias — and it's certainly fair to accuse Stone of filming Latin American leaders through rose-colored lenses — the portrait he paints of the contemporary social movement known as the Bolivarian Revolution (after Simon Bolivar's 19th century struggle to free Latin America from Spanish rule) isn't giddy or simple-minded.

Stone has constructed the film as a rebuttal of U.S. media coverage, much of which, as he demonstrates, is often alarmingly casual about referring to democratically elected Latin American leaders as "dictators." This tends to happen, he notes, when elections turn up leaders who oppose U.S. policy objectives — leaders, for instance, like Chavez. Stone documents the way the Bush administration publicly vilified Chavez as a strongman, following a playbook that Stone maintains the administration perfected in the run-up to the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. The director's point is that in each case, their countries' oil reserves provided the rationale, and clips from CNN and Fox (and The New York Times) are used to suggest the extent to which the U.S. media simply parroted the administration's line.

Stone's own narrative is a little different. He employs newsreel footage to brush in the highlights from half a century of Latin American social history, and films residents of Caracas high-fiving their gregarious president as he drives through the streets in an open jeep. Chavez turns on the charm in walking tours of government offices and in chatty little lectures on Venezuela's social progress. Stone returns the favor, chomping on coca leaves and accompanying Chavez to his childhood home. (Where, to grab folksy footage, he encourages Chavez to ride a tiny bicycle that breaks under his weight).

Hard to say who looks sillier at such moments.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva i i

hide captionOn The Rise: Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is one of several Latin American leaders profiled in Stone's new documentary — and one of the most impressive.

Jose Ibanez
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva

On The Rise: Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is one of several Latin American leaders profiled in Stone's new documentary — and one of the most impressive.

Jose Ibanez

Stone's vision of Chavez as put-upon sweetheart is one for which the timing's not great, since even the left seems a little disenchanted with the Venezuelan president these days. Happily, the focus broadens after the film's first third, and the remainder of South of the Border is an engaging tour of the rest of the continent, with stops along the way to visit six other left-leaning leaders.

Argentina's first couple — President Cristina Kirchner and her husband, Nestor, who preceded her in that office — come across as sophisticated and erudite. Bolivia's Evo Morales is pleasant, though his executive dignity suffers a bit when Stone kicks a soccer ball around with him on the presidential lawn. Paraguay's Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop, talks about liberation theology being the cause of many of the changes in Latin America; if that seems like a bit of a stretch, allow the man his soapbox.

Ecuador's Rafael Correa proposes that his country be allowed to have a military base in Miami, if the U.S. insists on maintaining one in Manta, which is a good sound bite if nothing else. Cuba's Raul Castro adopts a modest avuncular tone, pleasantly deflecting Stone's description of Cuba as the fount of leftism in Latin America and asserting that other nations are simply finding their own identity. And with much to brag about in a country that has rebounded dramatically during his term in office, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva makes the strongest impression, though he's on-screen for all of three minutes.

All of which makes South of the Border engaging enough as polemics go, but unlikely to change many minds. Stone has many directorial gifts, but lightness of touch isn't really one of them. Where Michael Moore might have employed a bit of ironic distance to make sense of shots of a film director palling around with national leaders, Stone shoots it all straight, which mostly seems self-aggrandizing. Given remarkable access to Latin America's most prominent political figures, he presents them as pleasantly avuncular. And somehow, avuncular doesn't seem good enough.

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