Oliver Stone's New Film: South of the Mark

Ill-served by a derelict media diet of distortions, stereotypes and outright falsehoods, the U.S. public is in sore need of a course correction when it comes to Latin America. For years, Fox and others have demonized Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and other progressive South American regimes which have voiced criticism of traditional U.S. foreign policy. As a result, many in the U.S. are poorly informed about Washington's underhanded objectives in the wider region and don't grasp what the new South American left is all about. As a writer who has long sought to elucidate these issues, I was enthusiastic to hear that veteran Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone planned to tackle the rise of Chávez and others in his new documentary film, South of the Border.

Years ago, when I was first becoming interested in Latin American politics, I saw Stone's film Salvador which examined U.S. involvement in troubled Central America. The central character in the movie, journalist and boozer Richard Boyle -- played by the wired James Woods -- manages to turn up wherever the action might lie, from El Salvador's military HQ to right wing confabs to insurgent camps to even the U.S. Embassy. It's an action-packed film jamming in and conflating many events in the Salvadoran political conflict, with Boyle in the eye of the storm.

Stone's greatest talent as a filmmaker may be his ability to create arresting visuals and imagery. Neither Salvador, JFK, Wall Street, Platoon, or Born on The Fourth of July are great films, but they all have individually memorable scenes which are propelled forward by Stone's innovative camera work. Like his later movies, Salvador is overwrought and over the top. Few however would deny that the film is effective from a visceral standpoint.

Sometimes, Stone's talented camera work compensates for his films' shoddy dialogue (let's face it: with the possible exception of Gordon Gecko, the director's forte does not lie in this arena). At other times, however, Stone's dialogue is so corny that it makes one cringe. Heading to the premiere of South of the Border at New York's Angelika Theater, I was hoping that Stone would emphasize skillful use of visual imagery while avoiding substandard dialogue.

Unfortunately, South of the Border exhibits none of Stone's core strengths while highlighting many of the director's shortcomings. What I found most surprising about the film was its low production values. I speak Spanish and was able to understand the dialogue with South American politicians, but I wondered about other people in the audience who had to rely on subtitles which, oddly enough, were hardly visible.

Variety reports that South of the Border was produced with a paltry budget of $2 million and Stone had just one soundman and two cameramen. Those are difficult obstacles to be sure, yet to me Stone's documentary seemed quite amateurish on a visual level. In many instances, the camera seemed poorly focused while imagery was overexposed. Overall, South of the Border looks dated, as if it could have been made in the 1970s or 80s before the advent of slicker documentary filmmakers like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock.

I had other problems with the film, not all of them purely technical in nature. During the Q&A after the film, scriptwriter Tariq Ali declared that the film was supposed to be a "political road movie." But South of the Border has no sense of adventure or zip. The first third of the movie or so gets bogged down with a lot of factual information about Venezuela and the rise of Hugo Chávez on the international stage. Stone narrates, speaking in an inflectionless monotone. Later, the director visits other South American countries and the tempo picks up somewhat, yet by that point the viewer is already fatigued.

To be sure, it is slightly unfair to expect that a documentary like South of the Border will have the same momentum as Stone's fictional films. In a documentary, one must convey more facts and information than a fictional film. Admittedly, striking the balance between politics and entertainment can prove challenging. Yet, if Stone's real intention was to make a road movie, then he might have dramatically paired down the Venezuela section while ratcheting up the travel.

In recent years, there's been a virtual explosion of reality programming on TV. While a lot of the new wave of shows has been trashy, a couple of programs have stood out from the pack. Take, for example the Travel Channel's No Reservations. The show, hosted by food writer Anthony Bourdain, has raised the bar of reality TV. With high production values and a decent amount of integrity, No Reservations has demonstrated that TV can still entertain while maintaining a vital cultural edge.

Of course, Stone is a political filmmaker and not a TV food host. However, the Hollywood director might have shrewdly adopted the reality template which would have yielded a richer and more revealing portrait of South America. At the end of the day, because Stone spends all his time talking to individual political leaders, the viewer gets no sense of the individual countries which the director travels to -- it's all a big blur.

If Stone had chopped much of the Venezuela section on the cutting room floor, which in any case relies on footage from an earlier and more gripping documentary entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Stone would have freed up valuable time to explore diverse countries dealt with in the film. Stone could have then included his interviews with South American leaders but also spoken with other less important people. Sometimes, it is the random, unscripted and colorful vignettes which yield the most levity.

Because Stone doesn't allow for such spontaneity, he has to force his laughs through interviews with prominent leaders. Speaking with Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Stone asks how many pairs of shoes she owns, prompting the South American leader to label Stone a sexist. There's another moment which I found a bit uncomfortable: speaking with Bolivian president Evo Morales, Stone breaks in with a complete non sequitur, declaring that he wants to play soccer. With the camera rolling, Morales rolls his eyes as if to say, "Who is this crazy gringo?"

Predictably, the mainstream media has provided negative coverage of South of the Border. Larry Rohter, longtime Latin American hand for the New York Times, conducted a hatchet job of the film, cherry picking certain select issues which in the correspondent's view cast doubt on Stone's own credibility. In the process, however, Rohter failed to disclose his own particular political bias [lest anyone accuse me of being unfair to Stone in this piece, see my own article attacking the Times, which appeared alongside Stone's own response to the paper].

But while mainstream coverage of South of the Border falls flat, the issue of Stone's own political ties to Latin leaders is a valid one. Refuting the right wing spin machine's Latin American coverage is important, but you don't want to go too far in the other direction and become a Chávez sycophant. Stone has stated that he likes Chávez very much, and finds the Venezuelan leader "charismatic," "warmhearted," and "big."

Personal feelings aside, if Stone had merely defended Chávez from charges in the right wing media that would have been fine. But Stone doesn't stop there -- he inserts scenes that frankly made me cringe. For example, at one point the filmmaker is seen talking to Chávez about soldiers who had been killed in a left wing coup dating to 1992. Chávez, who came out of the military and was associated with that particular effort, gets emotional when talking about the event. Stone, a combat veteran, remarks that he is sympathetic to the army man's point of view and talks about how difficult it was to see his friends die in the field in Vietnam. At that point, Stone and Chávez pat each other on the back.

In his political speeches Chávez is wont to hark on Simon Bolívar, the Great Liberator who brought independence to many South American nations. To be sure, Bolívar is an important historical figure, yet Chávez's unending efforts to appropriate the Liberator for political ends can prove tiring [for more on this, see my report for Council on Hemispheric Affairs as well as a subsequent update]. In South of the Border, Stone allows Chávez to ramble on about Bolívar as the Venezuelan leader poses in front of a painting of the Liberator. In a later scene, Stone remarks that Argentine President Kirchner is imbued with Chávez's own "Bolivarian spirit."

By and large, Hollywood directors are reluctant to tackle difficult political subject matter and Stone deserves credit for attempting to draw our attention to weighty and important issues. Personally, however, if I'm going to the movies for bombastic fare I prefer Gordon Gecko over Hugo Chávez.