South Of The Border Review

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Following on from his riveting chats with Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, Oliver Stone travels to five South American countries and interviews their presidents, trying to understand what he sees as the rise of a new kind of popular democratic socialism in the region.


Despite their technical sophistication and ripped-from-the-headlines feel, Oliver Stone’s films have always had a distinctly old-Hollywood quality: white hats set against black hats with good (grunt/blue-collar boy/harried D. A.) pitted against evil (army/Wall Street/establishment conspiracy), any areas of grey stridently obliterated by robust storytelling and masterful editing. It’s a Capraesque worldview, perfect for movies. Sadly, it’s less helpful when applied to the less Manichean world of real-life Latin American politics.

Stone’s definition of what makes a good political leader seems heavily predicated on them getting up the nose of the American government, thus all five of the leaders encountered are treated as equally saintly, any unfortunate moral or political blemishes politely ignored. The complicating fact, for instance, that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez came to power via a coup, albeit a popular one, is mentioned then airily dismissed. And it is left to former president of Argentina Nestor Kirchner to gently castigate the object of Stone’s schoolboy crush for his somewhat undemocratic desire to be elected for life.

A chat with Cuban leader Raúl Castro must hold some kind of record for the least informative encounter with a national leader in journalistic history, while veteran British commentator and former revolutionary Marxist Tariq Ali inadvertently provides light relief by imagining a pan-South American uprising fomenting a second American Revolution — precisely the kind of batty scenario that gives the US hawks their excuse to interfere in the first place. This is illustrated by a graphic with Dad’s Army-style arrows nudging menacingly at the US border. It’s enough to have Obama choking on a pretzel.

In amongst all this gaseous backslapping there is the odd informative moment. An account of the way the American government, in cahoots with the media, aided the 2002 coup against Chávez is opportune, and the IMF comes in for some deserved criticism for its role as a shill for discredited neo-con economic policy.

Stone is right in saying that the voices of these leaders are either ignored or distorted by western media. But complex issues need nuanced questions and tenacious interviews, not the fawnings of a political fanboy.

Stone’s film could have allowed political voices that are rarely present to get a fair, and critical hearing. Instead he near smooches them to death.