REVIEW: Oliver Stone's Suck-Up Safari Dooms South of the Border
An extended belly-bump of a documentary, South of the Border is Oliver Stone's feel-good take on the new South American politics. A vanity project by proxy, Stone attempts to restore (in the case of Hugo Chávez) and establish the reputations of the new guard of South American leadership, a superfriends conglomerate that rejects the imperial interests of the United States. Though he lavishes praise on his subjects for being hyper-masculine and free-thinking, Stone is downright girlish in his devotion, scoffing at charges made against the leaders rather than examining them. The plethora of Fox News-based inanity makes such elisions pretty easy: Obviously the haters -- notably a pair of anchors who can't tell the difference between cocoa and coca -- are nuts, right?
After spending 78 minutes with Chávez and Co., I still have no idea. Stone ends a prolonged bitchslap of the "mainstream media" (which he blames for the Iraq war, and hence, the vilification of oil-rich Venezuela's uncooperative leader) with Michael Moore's infamous confrontation of Wolf Blitzer. "We're in the fifth year of this war because you and CNN [...] didn't do your jobs back then," Moore barks, securing a spot in YouTube heaven. Citing the godfather of gotcha docs is Stone's cue to move directly into blissfully, stridently biased mode himself.
"Who is Chávez?" Stone asks. That question never gets a satisfying answer, though "Who isn't Chávez?" fares a little better. First of all: He's not a dictator, he just looks like one. A former militant who led a failed coup in 1992, Chávez was voted into office in 1998, and has been trying to change the legislation to extend his presidency ever since. Stone suggests that the International Monetary Fund and the D.E.A. are responsible for much of the continent's economic and drug troubles, having infected it with America's version of "predatory capitalism." Countries that are not willing to play along with American interests -- such as Venezuela and Bolivia -- are punished accordingly. Stone focuses largely on the Bush years, homing in on the attempted overthrow of Chávez's government in 2002. The fallout from Chávez's 47-hour detention by the military -- and the U.S.'s deafening silence -- soured relations between the two countries in earnest.
Stone relishes replaying clips of Chávez's visit to the UN, where he complained of the whiff of sulfur still lingering at the podium where Bush had recently stood. He loves the character at least as much as the leader, which makes for some uneasy and utterly fascinating interplay between them: As Chávez muses off the cuff about his hero, Simon Bolivar, while approaching an oil portrait of him, Stone physically repositions him in front of the painting for optimum effect, manipulating a media moment right before our eyes. We can practically see hearts burst over Stone's head as Chávez shrugs about how late he works and how little he sleeps. "What impressed me about Chávez," he says later, "was his strength. He's a bull! He's like Castro -- he kept it up."
Just what exactly Chávez is keeping up is not made sufficiently clear. There are plenty of bullsh*t sessions about nurturing a young democracy and playing footsie with socialist policy. Mention is also made of rejecting international lenders and building sovereign oil and agriculture economies, but only in passing; even then the discussions are clouded by the haze of mutual admiration that hangs over the men, who wind up unironically bonding over a Hemingway story. "Some say Chávez loves the poor people so much he created millions of new ones," says one dissenter, but the charge is dismissed as soon as it is made. Instead we cut to a photo of Chávez's grandmother, who he says died too young from overwork. A little later we are subjected to Chávez's moonlit reverie over his 1992 exploits; he points like Babe Ruth at the presidential palace in the distance and talks of his military duty to overthrow a corrupt regime. "As a soldier, I understand," Stone says. As a viewer, I do not care.
More interesting -- if only slightly less puff-prone -- are Stone's encounters with other South American leaders, including Bolivia's Evo Morales and the Kirchners of Argentina. As a group they do suggest a movement toward socialism, and a more interactive approach to governance. But any information gleaned from these meetings has to be filtered for a host of impurities. Though Stone gushes over Paraguay's president, the most he can manage for Cristina Kirchner, Argentina's first elected female president, is a question about how many shoes she owns. It's pretty much unbearable.
At some point they settle down enough for Kirchner to suggest that the United States is responsible for Argentina's post-recession poverty rate of 56%. Or maybe it just looked like she did; most of the continent's problems are pinned on the U.S., either implicitly or by editorial association, in South of the Border. Is extreme bias warranted where an extreme correction is necessary? It can be, as the more gutting of Michael Moore's polemics attest. But this? This is a grown man who should know better, trying to make political sport from his presidential safari.