South of the Border
Stone gets political, for real
There’s a curious through-the-looking-glass moment early on in Oliver Stone’s “South of the Border,’’ his documentary that aims to right what he sees are the wrong ways South America’s politics and its leaders have been portrayed in the US media. Stone gives us a clip of fellow polemical filmmaker Michael Moore.
Interviewed on CNN, Moore berates Wolf Blitzer for his network, and other news outlets, not asking tough enough questions of the Bush administration leading up to the invasion of Iraq.
The gesture may be a filmmaker’s in-joke. Or perhaps it’s an unintentionally prescient moment, signaling Stone’s desire to become more Moore-ian. Half of Stone’s output in the past decade has been documentaries: “Persona Non Grata’’ which examined the Israel-Palestine conflict, and “Comandante’’ and “Looking for Fidel,’’ both about Fidel Castro.
If Stone is morphing himself into Moore, here at least he’s free of that filmmaker’s most confrontational, camera-hijacking antics and rants. In a quest to find the truth, Stone travels to sit with the presidents of Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil, and even Raúl Castro of Cuba. Stone’s skeleton crew includes celebrated cinematographer Albert Maysles, who with his brother David pioneered the “direct cinema’’ landmarks “Salesman,’’ “Gimme Shelter,’’ and “Grey Gardens.’’
But where the Maysles’ aesthetic was to sit back and let the camera do the talking, Stone’s approach is more calculated. Much of the film consists of a TV news collage of coups and unrest. Newscasters’ voices give us the accepted back story, while Stone’s sometimes clunky narration, written by Mark Weisbrot and Tariq Ali, crucifies the media and American foreign policy even as it exonerates figures like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the film’s centerpiece.
If nothing else, Stone succeeds in humanizing the supposed despot. Of course, Chávez is charming: How else did he become so popular? There’s an endearing scene of the leader traveling to his hometown and riding a kid’s bicycle, which promptly collapses beneath him.
Stone has a crucial, overlooked viewpoint to impart, but as a documentary filmmaker, his content and technique are not terribly engaging. It’s hard not to long for Stone’s politics-infused, fictional works of yore, such as “Salvador.’’
“South of the Border’’ may be right, and it may be good for you, too.
Three minutes into the film, we feel the sharpness of Stone’s ax to grind. It’s dull to be told what to think.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at email@example.com.