Oliver Stone is a skilled craftsman who has produced a steady stream of consistently entertaining pictures, but there's an element to his personality--arguably one of his own making--that makes him increasingly difficult to take seriously as a documentary filmmaker. There's no denying the visceral power and emotional punch of an admittedly brilliant narrative film like JFK, but even Stone admitted to its fabrications and flights of fancy, positioning the film (honestly, if somewhat troublingly) as a "counter-myth" to the "official myth" of the Warren Commission report. No matter where you stand on the creation of "counter-myth" in fiction or docudrama (and this reviewer, for one, is basically fine with it), your reputation as that sort of fabricator can be something of a liability when attempting to enter the realm of serious journalism. Those lingering questions of credibility were an off-camera concern in his previous short docs, Persona Non Grata and Looking for Fidel; they're even more distracting in his new film South of the Border.
That's not to say that it isn't well-constructed or compelling--quite the contrary. He knows, first of all, that there's no better way to start a lefty doc than with a cold open of the Fox & Friends numbskulls, here seen bloviating on Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Indeed, the film opens with a flurry of American television news footage, with Stone illustrating the popular narratives regarding the controversial leader.
Stone spends roughly the first half of the short (78 minutes) feature on Chavez, going all the way back to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the IMF, and the riots in Caracas to chronicle Chavez's ascension to power, culminating with his first election in 1998. His difficulties staying in power are covered in detail, including demonstrations that turned violent (and were subsequently mischaracterized in local and international media outlets) and an aborted, one-day coup reportedly backed by the U.S. government. Stone wisely coughs up copious documentation of American involvement, as well as damning footage of Bush administration official Otto Reich getting badly burned on CNN.
In the film's second half, Stone does a hit-and-run tour of Latin America, interviewing several other like-minded leaders: Evo Morales of Bolivia; former Argentinean president Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina, the current president; Fernando Lugo of Paraguay; Lula da Silva of Brazil; and Raul Castro of Cuba. Several of the leaders are fascinating figures (Cristina Kirchner is particularly smart and quick-witted), and Stone adroitly pinpoints the cause-and-effect relationship of political power in their countries--how Chavez's forceful reign has empowered leaders across Latin America to make their own strides towards emboldened independence.
But his interviews are so openly fawning--he frequently, on camera, expresses his admiration for them, embraces Chavez several times, and even kicks a soccer ball around with Morales--that any aura of objectivity disappears quickly. There's simply a sense, throughout the film, that he's leaving stuff out, and the arguments he's willing to engage in are handled awkwardly and flimsily. Take, for instance, the inevitable (and important) discussion of Chavez's human rights record; Stone's weak sauce response basically boils down to "Well, Columbia's is bad too," which doesn't accomplish anything much more high-minded than "I know you are, but what am I?" It's a bit of an embarrassment to watch a smart guy like Stone soft-soaping someone like Chavez.
The image is somewhat hit and miss. Shot on handheld video by a band of cameramen (including legendary documentarian Al Maysles), much of the new footage is clean, well-saturated, and crisply detailed. But there are occasional glitches, and some scenes are strangely blown out (Chavez goofing off in his neighborhood) or overly grainy (Chavez and Stone on a rooftop at night). Much of the archival footage, and some of the B-roll, is pretty badly beat up. Overall, it's a spotty but acceptable video presentation.
The disc sports a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but it's all wrong; someone made the odd choice to place Stone's narration and much of the interview audio in the front right rather than the center channel (as is the norm in most documentaries and, frankly, narrative films as well), leaving music and environmental in the center, left, and surround speakers. The separation is strange and distracting; I ended up switching over to the 2.0 mix about 20 minutes in. That track is much smoother, with dialogue clear and ambient sound well-mixed.
In the "South American Tour" featurette (22:27), Stone returns to the region a year after principal photography for the film's premiere; he conducts and sits in on some additional interviews with the film's subjects (ironically, Chavez says he prefers "interviewers that are tough") and does press for the picture, addressing--rather weakly--some of the criticisms lobbed against it. It's an interesting supplement. The "Additional Questions for President Chavez" (17:23) come from the same trip, and are worth a look.
"Changes in Venezuela" (10:53) is a well-made, impressionistic look at the country on election day; seven chunks of Deleted Scenes (36:12 total) offer longer and more in-depth interviews. Two Stone TV Interviews about the film--one on Argentinean television (6:26) and one on Brazilian television (9:45)--close out the bonus features.
There's certainly a place for advocacy journalism, and there's no question that the full story of Chavez and his Latin American brethren has not yet been told on these shores. But in South of the Border, Oliver Stone doesn't construct anything resembling a complete picture, and leaves the story he does tell feeling tainted. The resulting picture, intriguing and inflammatory though it may be, too often plays like just another "counter-myth."
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.