Oliver Stone has made too many movies and won too many Oscars for us to simply label him a useful fool for the socialist dictators given soapbox time in his recent, fawning documentaries. And yet, here we are. His 2003 documentary Comandante, featuring a lengthy sit-down with Cuba's political Rasputin, Fidel Castro, at least had the benefit of novelty. In South of the Border, Stone doesn't throw softballs at Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, he nearly exalts him, while also demonizing a U.S. media so shallow it chooses to focus on Chavez's criminal deficiencies instead of his heroic ability to stand up to America. With this new documentary, Stone, who's been trying for years to make a film about Iran's Anti-Semite-in-Chief Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, continues his troubling, downward spiral into the open arms of nutjob leaders who won't be cowed by the corrupt forces of American might. Edging closer to boilerplate leftwing loon, Stone embarrasses himself by backing the wrong horse and then making a weak case for him, although the film's topicality definitely provides some electricity. An Oscar winning writer/director sitting down with a controversial Latin American potentate should generate big city chatter, although more people will read about the movie than actually see it. Still, leftists and policy wonks should throw some rubles at it, leading to okay theatrical returns and a decent life on cable and DVD.
Stone's movie career has mostly been an extended thesis on American governmental meddling (example: Salvador from 1986) and the pitfalls of capitalism (example: Wall Street from 1987). But in his early career, Stone was an artist using fictional entertainment to pose tough, valid questions about his country's behavior. Now, as the theories he worked out in JFK and Wall Street spin off into the stratosphere he's taken to celebrating corrupt leaders by ceding the documentary stage to their version of history as a roundabout way of taking digs (sometimes justified) at the U.S. But Chavez's reign has hurt so many of his people that ignoring all negatives makes Stone a shill for a dictator who has shut down TV stations critical of his policies, not to mention presided over electricity shortages, runaway inflation and corruption in the country's food-purchasing programs. Stone ties some of this to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, according to Chavez, put conditions on their loans that are inconsistent with his socialist policies. The IMF is, admittedly, an organ of the American financial system and when Stone isn't coming down on the U.S. through the IMF, he's coming down on the U.S. through its media. His assertion is that cable and network news sold us the Iraq War and they're now selling us Chavez as a ruthless, crazy pants dictator. The media, he says, simplifies the world into friends (who do what the U.S. wants) and enemies (who don't). As the top-rated cable news channel, conservative mouthpiece Fox News is the heaviest hammer in the media's anti-Chavez crusade. While making an idiotic show like Fox & Friends look juvenile, jingoistic and anti-left is child's play, Stone also notes that liberal-leaning CNN claimed Chavez is more dangerous than Osama bin Laden. Later, Stone rips the Venezuelan media by accusing them of manipulating footage to help sell the 2002 coup that overthrew Chavez for a grand total of 47 hours. What Stone fails to mention is that criticizing Chavez in the Venezuelan media will get you thrown in jail. Anti-government talk has led to his refusal to renew the broadcast license of both RCTV (which relaunched as a cable service) and, more recently, Globovisión. Stone's also not telling you that channels operating on public airwaves in Venezuela must carry Chavez's speeches live and in their entirety. Chavez gives many speeches and some of them last up to seven hours. And refusal to broadcast any of it is illegal.
But what's a little censorship and denial of free speech rights when talking about a man from humble beginnings who came to preside over one of the world's largest oil reserves? To be fair though, Chavez's rise from mud hut to presidential mansion is pretty amazing. Stone recaps Chavez's years in the Venezuelan military, his career-launching, 1992 attempt to overthrow then-President Carlos Andres Perez (which led to a two-year jail sentence), his election to national office in 1998 (defeating a former Miss Universe) and the failed U.S.-backed coup in 2002 that allowed him to claim victory over mighty American forces. Since then, Stone's hero has scrapped term limits and has reportedly mentioned a desire to hold office until 2030. That last part is not in the film. Probably an innocent oversight, but maybe Stone needed time for humanizing photo-ops like Chavez riding a bicycle in his hometown (which breaks under his weight) and answering probing questions about what time he got to sleep the previous night (the answer was 3am).
Stone appears throughout the film and never comes off as self-aggrandizing, strident or indignant. But that only adds to the sense that he's an uncritical propaganda tool for the whole of Latin America. It's unknown how tightly controlled Stone's Venezuelan visit was (maybe he believes government-controlled tours of North Korea are unfettered). But if he had access to contradictory accounts and opposition figures, he didn't avail himself of them. In this self-described "corrective," shot by the great Albert Maysles, one of America's premiere directors lets Chavez spew without factual accountability to a sweeping, heroic score that demonstrates Stone's admiration more than anything else. He also lines up a group of South American leaders for gush patrol, including Bolivia's Evo Morales (seen kicking around a soccer ball for the cameras), Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Cuba's Raúl Castro, who sees romantic nobility in Chavez fighting off the Americans.
As a Vietnam vet, lauded artist and American citizen, Stone has every right to call our government out on its many failings. And he's correct that Venezuela, like any nation, should be allowed to steer its own course without U.S. involvement, although that's not going to be easy when you're sitting on such enormous oil reserves. He's also right in saying the American media has become lazy, polarizing and one-sided. But if that's the case, what does that make Stone's bootlicking pile of documentary non-reportage?
Distributor: Cinema Libre
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriters: Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot
Producers: Fernando Sulichin, Jose Ibanez and Rob Wilson
Running time: 78 min
Release date: June 25 NY, July 2 LA