So one-sided that it nearly validates what the Right says about Hollywood’s liberal crusaders, Oliver Stone’s essay/lecture/travelogue South of the Border is propaganda in the form of a home movie, documenting Stone’s summer vacation spent in the collegial company of the figureheads of various South American states.
About 10 minutes in, the iconic filmmaker appears onscreen for the first time alongside Hugo Chávez, the charismatic, controversial leader of Venezuela. This is not a sit-down interview; the filmmaker isn’t directing questions at Chávez, or apparently directing much of anything—they’re just hanging out. Afforded extraordinarily casual access to Chávez, Raúl Castro, the Kirchners of Argentina, Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, and other heads of state, Stone generally allows his subjects to set the course of conversation, avoiding not only the tough questions about their records on human rights and allegations of corruption, but also pretty much any question that might get in the way of each leader’s sales pitch for his regime, or the notion of the U.S. as the big, bad man holding them down.
Stone and Chávez seem especially palsy-walsy: They kick around a soccer ball, kick it on Chávez’s private jet, and casually shoot the shit about how Chávez is a misunderstood man of the people, unfairly demonized by the media. Later, when it’s mentioned that Lugo owes money to the International Monetary Fund, Stone cracks, “Chávez will loan you that if I ask him.” His crush on Chávez is such that he avoids interrogating not only his politics, but also his demonstrated tendency to pitch those politics via a kind of over-the-top comic public theater.
And yet Stone raises the specter of media manipulation when it suits him, devoting a whole section of the film to sympathetically presenting Chávez’s argument that during the failed coup attempt of 2002, the Venezuelan media were so in the tank for his political opponents that they edited footage of rioting in the streets to make it look as if Chávez’s supporters instigated a fire fight. The construction of false realities for political gain is the subject of much of Stone’s own work—so why is he content to take each leader’s practiced-for-the-camera spiel at face value, never pushing for information or conducting interviews on any deeper level than a photo op? South of the Border‘s subjects are masters at cooking bullshit, and Stone just eats it up.