He has his detractors, his loud, angry detractors, but I enjoy films by Oliver Stone. I may not always agree with him, and he may even be a buffoon, but I salute him for using mainstream cinema to explore his dark, detailed vision. My favorite Stone film, Nixon, is a shattering, despairing aria about what's wrong with everything.
That said, his polemical documentary South of the Border feels like a misstep. In fictive political films like Nixon and W., Stone - whose Wall Street sequel comes out Sept. 24 - is able to flesh out his points by, well, making stuff up. The documentary form doesn't give him that luxury.
South of the Border is primarily a defense of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, and a celebration of his populist politics. Stone also talks to Latin American leaders he finds similarly inspiring, including Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Cuba's Raúl Castro and Bolivia's Evo Morales. In one amusing if odd scene, Stone and Morales chew coca leaves, then expend their artificially induced energy kicking a soccer ball around.
Stone harshly analyzes the Latin American policies of the United States, as well as those of the International Monetary Fund, which, we are told, caused needless suffering. He's especially hard on the George W. Bush administration, which indeed looked Machiavellian when it seemed to support the 2002 coup against the democratically elected Chávez. Bush haters will enjoy seeing, one more time, the footage of a grinning Chávez telling the United Nations that Bush is the devil and leaves the odor of sulfur in his wake.
South of the Border mocks and criticizes media outlets, especially - predictably - Fox News. The beginning of the film is a funny clip of chirpy Fox & Friends hosts mistakenly saying, over and over, that Chávez chews cocoa, even after someone off camera tells them they mean coca. Stone also calls out news organizations on "the more serious end," meaning CNN, NBC, The New York Times. Yet he also uses mainstream news clips to advance simple points of narrative: This happened, and then this happened. If he so distrusts media types, why does he let them tell his story?
The leaders Stone interviews are smart and engaging, and they seem serious about tackling problems like poverty. Still, I'm wary of Stone's choice to include so many scenes of Chávez kissing children and working adoring crowds. They remind me of a recent BBC World Service documentary about author Doris Lessing and other "useful idiots," who visited Stalin's Russia and were shown scenes of happiness and prosperity.
Believe me, I'm not saying Chávez is Stalin. But in his time visiting Venezuela, Stone seems only to have talked to Chávez. If Chávez's Venezuela is as wonderful as we're meant to think it is, couldn't Stone have found someone else there to say so?
A Q&A with local experts follows the South of the Border screening at 7 pm on Friday, Sept. 17.