The documentary-as-personal-essay suits director Oliver Stone’s sensibility. Never one for subtlety, Stone briefly peaked in the early 1990s with a fluid, ever-shifting, druggy, bombastic cinematic style that transcended the simplicity that his subject matter often courted. More recently, the filmmaker has been in a rut. Films like W. and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps have continued the filmmaker’s blunt sermonizing, only without the electric, mysterious Rorschach intensity of films such as Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Stone’s South of the Border is a plea to see South America (assuming the typical American considers South America at all) as more than a nest of impoverished anti-American dictators, drug dealers, and all-around malcontents. The documentary format allows Stone to cast aside all pretenses of commercial interest and mount a soapbox.
Stone enjoyed a camaraderie with Fidel Castro while filming Comandante, and that association afforded him unprecedented access to a number of other South American presidents, including Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), and Fernando Lugo (Paraguay). The conversations, deceptively casual, chiefly concern the media’s biased portrayal of South America’s reluctance to establish ties with North America and Europe, particularly with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is primarily controlled by the U.S. Treasury. The documentary—a trim 78 minutes—is dense with recollections of coups, assassination attempts, U.S.-sponsored paramilitary outfits, and media hypocrisy. Stone’s theme is simple: A powerful empire (us) is interfering with a less powerful culture (them) for reasons both financial and egotistical—and said empire is lying to its citizens to maintain status quo, relying on the typical citizen’s general indifference. As Stone says more than once, “it’s the same old story.”
A dull movie, overwhelmed with numbers, could be made of this material, but Stone, accustomed to fictional filmmaking, has a storyteller’s zest, and his conceit is cannier than it may at first seem. Stone presents the illusion of an American citizen essentially strolling around a continent, engaging in face-to-faces with conclusions that have clearly been determined beforehand. We don’t see people juggling calendars or filing for clearances, and we don’t see anyone arguing. No one is ever, at any point, challenged. Instead we see a man—determined to set the record straight—enjoying a reciprocation of respect with people with whom many of us couldn’t get within 50 miles. Stone isn’t an everyman, he’s a wealthy filmmaker from a pedigreed family with an Ivy League Alma mater, but he cuts an appealing everyman figure with his sweaters and belly and his restless, fiercely intelligent eyes. Stone, in short, is a Michael Moore sort of everyman. But he shows you shades of humility to dilute the self-righteousness, Stone is more conventionally likeable than Moore, essentially a better actor.
Politically, I’m sympathetic to Stone. I don’t have much difficulty imagining the United States government, and media outlets, that South of the Border proposes. It isn’t difficult for me to picture a government that manipulates the press for their own purposes, and that lords organizations like the IMF over other countries to exert influence. Stone never explicitly contrasts South America’s strides toward successful socialist governments, independent of U.S. funding, with our own internal woes, but those parallels are undeniable. The IMF, as presented by Stone, is an organization that enslaves countries with credit, interest, and business models that are meant to collapse, a macrocosm of the trap that ensnares the typical American consumer. Stone never explicitly says it (which stuns me), but it’s also clear that South America’s economic reform is meant to be taken as a hint to another country with a massive, seemingly unsolvable financial deficit.
Judging from his work, Stone doesn’t have an analytic mind, he’s a crusader with movies in his head. Stone’s films are rigidly right-versus-wrong in construction, but he occasionally achieves greatness as an artist in spite of that limitation because his brave recklessness allows him to access more interesting facets of his subjects. Quentin Tarantino deliberately missed the point when he criticized the “I Love Mallory” sequence in Natural Born Killers, claiming that it “explained” the killers in a reductive way when it was that very desire for explanation that Stone was satirizing. Platoon is overrated, dramatizing a national travesty with the hoariest of situations and symbols, but the staging of the film was often lively and tense—more truthful than the material.
South of the Border is similarly flawed and effective at once: The film has jittery, surprisingly exciting editing rhythms that convey Stone’s turmoil, his exasperation with his country’s unending exploitation of others. But Stone’s conception of that exploitation is naïve, romanticizing the poor, and South America in general. Stone has already made up his mind, and to his credit, he never pretends otherwise. But treating the South American situation continually as a foregone conclusion inspires distrust (moments of Chávez behaving like a pandering, sexist jerk—included in the extras—are nowhere to be seen in the proper film). Stone’s frustration with his own country leads to potentially misplaced romanticism of another land (Moore stepped in the same trap with Canada in Bowling for Columbine).
Stone is fighting fire with fire, propaganda with propaganda. South of the Border is Stone’s most engaging film in years and it’s an admirable one; it should be seen as a partial correction to routine American media inanity and corruption. You do, however, wish that Stone had greater perspective on his own demons and self-interests, but that’s, really, the ultimate paradox of his work: If he had greater control, he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone, and he probably wouldn’t have made this movie at all.
The cinematography is a kind of gorgeous vérité experience (it was, after all, partially shot by the legendary Albert Maysles). South of the Border's beautifully warm, inviting colors affirm Oliver Stone's notion of South America as a wronged continent now triumphant, and the shaky movements and occasional boom mike intrusions sell us the day-to-day reality of the crew's task. This humble lavishness, a seeming contradiction in terms that works, is well preserved on DVD. The sound mix is also cleverly subtle: You can occasionally hear the translators relaying the varying presidents' sentiments to Stone as you read the subtitles, highlighting the cultural barriers the various parties are crossing.
The extras are plentiful, but not especially essential. "South American Tour 2010" follows Stone as he revisits his subjects and addresses the press upon the film's release in South America, and it plays as a somewhat smug victory lap (the press's concerns with the filmmaker's approach to the subject matter are implied but glossed over). The interviews with Stone—each no more than 10 minutes in length—are similarly disappointing in this regard. Telma Luzzani barely speaks at all, she's a sounding board for what Stone already told us in the film. Kennedy Alencar is clearly more interested in debate, but isn't afforded the time. "Changes in Venezuela" is inspiring, but again, the film covered this material already; and the deleted scenes, as usual, were understandably deleted. Stone obviously said what he wanted to say in South of the Border, and the rest is engaging but mostly redundant. A clearer context of the varying reactions to the film would have been appreciated.
Oliver Stone's flawed, fascinating doc receives an appropriately subjective DVD treatment.