There’s a shrewdly but skeptically revisionist tone about Oliver Stone’s new documentary South of the Border, one that oddly seems designed to abate any political enthusiasm that the film’s headily socio-economic incisiveness might instill. Interpolating archival media coverage of and personal interviews with a collective of South America’s most demonized and yet most financially savvy leaders (including Hugo Chavez, Fernando Lugo, and Raúl Castro), Stone steadily shapes an intermittently muddied but more often piquant video essay that softly defends its maligned subjects. But while the film admirably offers U.S. audiences a more nuanced sense of contemporary Latino perspective, it ultimately lacks the fiery feel of a polemic that might melt our erroneous assumptions down and smith them into a much-needed emotional revolution against capitalist hegemony.
After having observed the eventual effects of the United States’s hyper-temperamental and mercilessly opportunistic interpretation of global diplomacy, at least in Central America, it’s difficult for me to not regard even perfunctory studies of our hemispheric neighbors’ socialist reconstructive attempts as required gringo viewing—though this obligation always carries, naturally, the caveat that very little of the reportage that reaches us from that region can be classified as non-propagandist. And the skewed stranglehold the media—defined here in so many words as a trans-Atlantic legislative and elitist mouthpiece—maintains over America’s perception of countries such as Cuba or Venezuela is one of Stone’s primary targets, but it also coils the movie into an inconveniently self-denying paradox. How can one shame news outlets for manipulating audiences into misguided conclusions when one is, in turn, employing similar editorial techniques to correct them?
Perhaps as a result of this rhetorical tension, the Oliver Stone of South of the Border might be the subtlest we’ve seen thus far—aside from, perhaps, the passive provocateur of Comandante, who proved that mere hospitality toward Castro could be a potent political statement, if not a particularly useful one. The muted anger and intensified desire to for once nail the truth into place before it scurries off the map lends itself to a pensive, deliberate sophistication that, for the most part, hesitates gun-jumping and occasionally seems content to inspire further research on complicated topics (this is as much screenwriters Tariq Ali and Mark Wiesbrot’s project as it is Stone’s, most obviously in the plodding Hugo Chavez history lesson that dominates the first act). It’s an approach that allows South America’s leaders to speak from the corazón without much tendentious intervention, and domestic pundits are given equal space to skewer themselves with misinformation; the film begins comically with FOX News anchors treating Chavez’s daily chewing of coca leaves as an international scandal. But, unfortunately, it also facilitates partial-at-best portraits of political icons with remarkably baroque public personas, thereby stunting Stone’s grander goal of illumination.
As we tour the now government-controlled, and now unprecedentedly lucrative, corn and oil industries of Venezuela, or listen in on Bolivian president Evo Morales’s testimony regarding the unflinching agenda of the International Monetary Fund, we feel Stone’s avuncular mug quietly but confidently assuring us that socialism isn’t the evil it’s cracked up to be. It’s hard to resist succumbing to his argument: Chavez, in particular, whose coup survival and subsequent reformation tactics were the intended central subject of the documentary’s initial conception, comes across as the most agriculturally informed and democratically devoted head of state currently serving today. And when Stone simply quotes statistics proving the positive effects that liberalism has had on South American poverty and industry, the film unassumingly triumphs as a “let’s set the facts straight” pamphlet. But the ground gained with such content is nearly lost in aimless scenes that attempt to purport the misunderstood down-to-earthness of Los Presidentes: Chavez grinningly rides a bike around the dirt plot where his childhood hovel once stood; Morales is enticed into an impromptu soccer game; and Argentine Cristina Kirchner chats about shoes while cinematographer David Maysles frames her sexily against a Buenos Aires magic hour.
Still, even as the documentary limps through its half-sober, half-Casual Friday encounters, Stone provides us with sinewy food for thought. Though its occasional George W. Bush hate is confusingly anachronistic, Stone’s interview with Paraguayan official Fernando Lugo is the closest the film comes to an incendiary rallying cry: The IMF is revealed as a biased, status quo-patrolling agent, the continuing U.S.-Cuban embargo is criticized as childishly arrogant, and the path is breathlessly pointed toward an independent, collaborative, and more importantly globally competitive Latin American union. It’s a speech Michael Moore would giddily flank with wily provocation, but the most Stone can muster is a dismayed sputter about the death of “predatory capitalism” that fills us with conservative hope. South of the Border may not ask in the most eloquent manner possible, but the inquiry is a pressing one: How many more ill-organized, neo-fascist South American coups d’états will the United States fund before acknowledging Bolivarian Republicanism as, at the very least, a cooperative mixed blessing with an equal right to participate in the world economy?