MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This week New York City rolled out a welcome mat for world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly. But Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez got something extra. Hes the star of Oliver Stones new documentary, South of the Border and he attended the U.S. premiere just after he addressed the U.N.

NPRs Robert Smith was there.

ROBERT SMITH: This was not your typical Hollywood red carpet event. To tell you the truth, the carpet was gray. The only red was the man the photographers were waiting for, socialist President Hugo Chavez.

(Soundbite of crowd)

SMITH: He arrived wearing a chic tomato color turtleneck.

(Soundbite of crowd)

SMITH: And he took to the whole movie premier thing like a natural. He mugged for the cameras, he stopped at every microphone, he praised his director, Oliver Stone.

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Foreign language spoken)

SMITH: Chavez grabbed Stone and pointed to the directors skull, called him a genius. And said Stone was able to interpret what was really going on in South America.

Pres. CHAVEZ: A revolution.

SMITH: Oliver Stone directs mostly features, movies like Platoon, and JFK and Wall Street. But he does dabble in documentaries. Hes focused on Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro. Hugo Chavez was a natural sequel.

Mr. OLIVER STONE (Director, South of the Border): Hes an underdog and I want to give him a fair shake, and I think the movie does that.

SMITH: It must be difficult to call this movie a documentary. In fact, Stone describes it as a rebuttal. It opens with a montage of the most outlandish things that the U.S. media has said about Hugo Chavez.

(Soundbite of documentary, South of the Border)

Unidentified Man #1: The Venezuelan president has become more dangerous to the U.S. than Fidel Castro ever was. Hes more dangerous than bin Laden and the effects of Chavezs war against America could eclipse those of 9/11.

SMITH: Oliver Stone takes the film to the opposite extreme. If the U.S. media paints Chavez as Satan, then Stone is going to show an angel sent to save South America.

(Soundbite of documentary, South of the Border)

Unidentified Man #2: Who is Hugo Chavez? Where did he come from? He was literally born in a mud hut and grew up in poverty

SMITH: The film is at its best when its tracking Chavezs dramatic rise to power. But most of the film plays as the strange buddy picture. Oliver Stone hangs out in the presidential palace. Oliver Stone flies on Chavezs private jet, Oliver Stone and Chavez tour factories. Throughout this whole thing, Stone the man famous for his conspiracy theories and questioning of the official story, never asks a single challenging question. Instead, he asked do you have any fun? Do you ever read for pleasure?

(Soundbite of documentary, South of the Border)

Mr. STONE: What time did you go to sleep last night?

Pres. CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. STONE: Three a.m.? Did you work until 2 or what

SMITH: Stone never brings up any controversy. He never asked why Chavez revoked the licenses of private radio and TV stations. He doesnt talk about the Amnesty International report, criticizing the country for human rights abuses. Stone never interviews a single, average citizen of Venezuela. Instead, he jets around the region to talk to Chavezs allies and hang out with them, like President Evo Morales of Bolivia.

(Soundbite of documentary, South of the Border)

Mr. STONE: I want to play soccer with the president. Can you show me a little soccer action?

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: At the end of the premier, Hugo Chavez was grinning. Evo Morales who also attended said this movie should air on CNN. Everyday, Chavez joked. Welcome to the axis of evil, Morales said to Stone. After the party, I asked Stone, what happened to the skeptical director of films like JFK? He said he learn something from that movie. If you try and include back and forth debate in a film, it just confuses people.

Mr. STONE: I dont pretend that the movie is a three or four-hour documentation of all the issues. It is simply a road movie that shows that Chavez works. So, if you want to deal in the 10 percent of negatives, and you want to dice and slice your movie for that 10 percent, youre going to hurt the movie. Youre going to - thats not the point.

SMITH: The point, as always been in Oliver Stone film, is that Oliver Stone keeps complete control. Thats a trick even Hugo Chavez might admire.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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