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South of the Border

Movie Review


Published September 29, 2010 at 9:01 a.m.

Michael Moore appears to have exhausted himself — burned out, at least temporarily, in his mission to make the world a better place via documentary films. So it’s fitting that he makes a feisty appearance in the opening moments of South of the Border, and a stroke of cultural luck that, of all people, Oliver Stone has picked up where Moore left off.

In a clip, Moore rails at CNN — represented by Wolf Blitzer — for initially swallowing the Bush Iraq-invasion rationale hook, line and sinker and failing to do the sort of fact checking and analysis a major news organization has a sacred obligation to do.

It’s fun to watch Blitzer squirm and essentially apologize. But Moore’s condemnation extends beyond CNN to virtually every major institution of mainstream American media. Lies were press-released by the White House and, to a devastating degree, even the most venerated newspapers and television outlets parroted those mistruths. By virtue of its laziness, the press lied, too.

Moore’s rant provides a perfect springboard for Stone’s condemnation of a similar, potentially just as insidious ruse. While the press daily directs the eyes of the world toward the Middle East, an enlightened transformation is sweeping South America, and no one in the media seems much inclined to talk about it.

Except, that is, when news organizations feel like recycling fabrications disseminated by the previous administration. For example: that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is a ruthless dictator who poses a threat to U.S. interests. (He’s been democratically elected again and again.) Stone includes a jaw-dropping clip in which a gaggle of Fox News hosts repeatedly mispronounce the word “coca” as “coco,” dissolving into giggles as they falsely report that Chávez is also a drug addict.

To prove just how unreliable this nation’s news coverage has become, the director makes a whirlwind tour of five countries and records informal conversations with left and center-left heads of state who’ve come to power in recent years. Most of the film is devoted to his eye-opening visit with the Venezuelan president, whom Stone never represents as flawless. But Chávez turns out to be unexpectedly intelligent, forward thinking, jovial, beloved by his people and candid about his contempt for George W. Bush.

Venezuela, Chávez informs his guest, is the world’s third largest supplier of petroleum. So, we are not too surprised to learn that the U.S. helped stage a coup against Chávez in 2002. It failed. He was briefly taken into custody, but his people and his military rebelled and returned him to power. The tale has a familiar ring to it. “Here’s Bush’s plan,” Chávez explains, “First, Hugo Chávez ... oil.” Then, “Saddam Hussein ... oil.”

Conversations with other leaders reveal a common goal: getting out from under the thumb of the United States and receiving treatment as equals on the world stage. My bet is, they also wouldn’t mind a little less demonizing and a far more fair and balanced portrait in the American press of the strides they’ve made in reducing poverty, improving health care and education, and generally raising their people’s standard of living. At one point, Rafael Correa of Ecuador is asked whether he finds the media’s misrepresentation of him hurtful. “I’d be more worried,” he says with a smile, “if they spoke well of me.”

South of the Border certainly isn’t the last word on its subject. But it’s an excellent conversation starter and, of the two new Oliver Stone releases in theaters, easily the more significant addition to the legendary director’s filmography.