South of the Border
Movie review: Oliver Stone's 'South of the Border,' a broader message distorted
Friday, July 2, 2010
One thing Oliver Stone can't be accused of is having a hidden agenda.
The filmmaker who has alternately infuriated and energized filmgoers with his revisionist versions of American history delivers one of his left-handed nonfiction projects with "South of the Border," a personal, maddeningly blinkered travelogue through Latin America that, for all its willful naivete, offers a valuable glimpse of historical and social change.
Most of the film is devoted to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, with whom Stone enjoys a mutually adoring friendship that borders on the embarrassing. When Chávez was elected president in 1998, he vowed to free the country's oil wealth from the control of U.S. corporate interests and the International Monetary Fund. In successive years, which have included a coup attempt (see "The Revolution Will Not be Televised" for a fascinating first-hand account), Chávez has come under increasing criticism for clamping down on human rights, freedom of the press and separation of powers.
Very little of that is addressed by Stone, apart from pointing out that Colombia has a worse human rights record that goes relatively unnoticed because it is a U.S. ally. Instead, he lobs softballs to Chávez ("I've never seen such energy. Never.") and "directs" him in a sentimental scene wherein the leader visits his childhood home. As Stone travels to Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil and finally Cuba, to visit Raúl Castro, he evinces no interest in tough questions or speaking with dissidents or even encountering the odd citizen with a critical opinion. Stone is strictly a Great Man guy (and Great Woman, considering the charismatic president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner); his infatuation with power, as well as a congenital aversion to shades of gray, often threatens to derail the entire enterprise.
Nonetheless, "South of the Border" has a cumulative potency, as one by one each leader explains the destabilizing and outright predatory effect of Western fiscal policies on their countries, a collective history that puts current efforts at economic autonomy in context. ("For the first time in the region," Kirchner tells Stone, "the leaders look like the people they govern.")
Viewers can and will argue about the specifics of those efforts, the appropriate U.S. response and whether we've been given distorted versions of the facts (part of Stone's un-hidden agenda is a blistering critique of American media, especially Fox News). It's an argument worth having. Even at its most supine and incurious, "South of the Border" has an important larger case to make: Love the revolutions or despise them, what's happening in Latin American shouldn't be demonized or ignored.
** Unrated. At AMC Loews Shirlington. Contains nothing objectionable. In English, Spanish and Portuguese with English subtitles. 78 minutes.