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Oliver Stone’s Radical Energy Goes South

by Rob Nelson

Tags: Arts, Film, Rob Nelson, film critic, film review, documentary film, Oliver Stone, South of the Border, capitalism, Latin America, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela,

Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez

Oliver Stone is not a subtle filmmaker. His projects, like the director himself, tend to voice bold opinions and provoke strong responses—and his latest, South of the Border, about the new wave of leftist leaders in Latin America, is no different. Critic Rob Nelson calls the film a “countermyth” to prevailing media coverage and came away impressed by its entertainment value if not its evenhandedness. Fellow critic Anthony Kaufman, however, also writing on Utne.com, sees the film as crossing over into “counterpropaganda,” glossing over Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s human rights abuses with its “reductive calculations.” Apparently, asking people how they liked the film is like asking them who shot J.F.K.: You’ll get a different answer every time. —The Editors

A suitably flashy attraction at the Cannes Film Festival last month, director Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps stars Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan as a young Manhattan power-couple facing the potential loss of its fortune—and that of a hot commodity in utero. A next-generation Wall Street in more ways than one, the bloated sequel finds Stone staring down the global economic crisis for two and a half hours, only to conclude that what the world needs now is . . . more babies!

Luckily for fans of the intermittently radical filmmaker, another new Stone movie has arrived this year with somewhat more to say about the evils of predatory capitalism. South of the Border, Stone’s documentary tour of Latin America, fingers the International Monetary Fund for its role in oppressing the economies of Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, and four other Latin countries. The director’s hero is Hugo Chavez, and his enemy is the mainstream media, which has vilified the Venezuelan president for daring to resist the pull of U.S.-led corporate interests.

Not to say that Stone has left his Hollywood credentials at home. South of the Border often plays like a nostalgic star vehicle for the camera-loving Chavez, whom Stone at one point directs to mount a kid’s tiny bike and tool it around the modest backyard where he used to play with his grandma. Elsewhere on the road trip, the filmmaker chews coca leaves and kicks a soccer ball with Bolivian president Evo Morales, and cheekily offers to broker a deal on behalf of Paraguayan leader Fernando Lugo. “Chavez would make you a loan,” Stone assures Lugo, “if I talked to him.” (Money never sleeps, indeed.)

That Stone appears more of a celebrity journalist than an investigative one hardly diminishes the documentary’s value, at least not as entertainment. Admiringly regarding Chavez as a “bull,” Stone has made a movie that’s entirely of a piece with his 2003 hagiography of Fidel Castro, Comandante, whose HBO producers deemed too fawning for broadcast.

Stone, whom HBO persuaded to ask tougher questions of Castro in a substitute doc called Looking for Fidel, has been mostly silent on the sad fate of Comandante. But judging from South of the Border, a Cinema Libre release that strongly implicates CNN in the promulgation of anti-Chavez propaganda, the director might say that Time-Warner-owned networks have a problem with one-sided reportage only when it comes from the left.

“Millions of people watch these [cable news networks] consistently, night and day, throughout North America,” Stone announces at the start of South of the Border. “Do they believe what they see?” The film’s opening salvo includes a George W. Bush-era CNN report that “leftist menace” Chavez had “ripped off” ExxonMobil—by establishing his nation’s own multibillion-dollar oil project. (Only weeks ago did an international court finally rule in favor of Venezuela in ExxonMobil’s lawsuit.)

As much a countermyth as Stone’s JFK, South of the Border salutes what it sees as a new hotbed of radical energy. The film expresses solidarity not only with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela—the world’s third largest supplier of petroleum—but with other Latin American nations that support Chavez’s model of independence from U.S. economic influence.

Albeit more fun than stimulating, Stone’s documentary is forceful enough to have inspired blowback even before its opening in New York this Friday. An item posted this week by James Hirsen on Examiner.com delights at the news that South of the Border has bombed in Venezuelan theaters, and jokes that Stone needn’t worry because the film will be a “big hit with Ivy League Marxist professors, socialist public union leaders and the 27 people who watch MSNBC.” Millions of CNN fans will likely prefer Stone’s other new film, Money Never Sleeps, wherein even Michael Douglas’s greedy Gordon Gekko proves capable of spiritual redemption.

Photo by Jose Ibanez, courtesy of South of the Border.