NYT Movie Critic: Dictator Hugo Chavez a 'Good-Hearted Man of the People'

Stephen Holden, the New York Times' most left-wing movie critic (and that's saying something) admires Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez almost as much as left-wing conspiracist/movie director Oliver Stone does.

Stone's new documentary, "South of the Border," features informal interview sessions with several left-wing Latin American leaders, but the screen-time is dominated by Chavez, who Holden holds up as a humorous, "good-hearted man of the people."

Political documentaries shadowed by paranoia and apocalyptic foreboding are so commonplace nowadays that "South of the Border," Oliver Stone's celebration of the leftward tilt of South American politics, comes as a cheerful surprise. As anyone who remembers "JFK," his 1991 film about the Kennedy assassination, can attest, Mr. Stone has his own paranoid tendencies, but they are muted in this provocative, if shallow, exaltation of Latin American socialism.

During "South of the Border" Mr. Stone schmoozes with several left-wing political leaders, including his good buddy the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez; he takes Mr. Stone to his childhood home, where Mr. Chávez mounts a children's bike that collapses under him. Mr. Chávez comes across as a rough-hewn but good-hearted man of the people whose bullheaded determination is softened by a sense of humor. At a corn-processing factory, he jokes: "This is where we build the Iranian atomic bomb. A corn bomb." Ho, ho, ho.

Such "humor" is especially hilarious given that, as Forbes reports, Venezuela under Chavez harbors terrorists and weapons from the anti-Israel groups Hezbollah and Hamas via Tehran.

Mr. Stone's visit with Mr. Chávez is the movie's longest interview with a Latin American statesman during what feels like a whirlwind tour of South American capitals. Instead of the saber-rattling, America-hating tyrants often depicted on American television (especially Fox News, several of whose extreme fulminations are excerpted for comic effect), Mr. Stone finds sensible, plain-spoken men (and one woman, Argentina's president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner). They are well aware of how power works in the global arena. Those who have it use it for their own advantage; it's the way of the world.

The two demonic influences named in the movie are the American-controlled International Monetary Fund and the "private media." Mrs. Kirchner recalls resisting pressure to keep borrowing from the fund rather than pay back what was owed. Mr. Chávez repeatedly triumphs despite the almost unanimous hostility of Venezuela's privately owned media.

Holden brought up the anti-Chavez hostility of the "private" media without reporting that earlier this year Chavez arrested the owner of the independent TV network Globovision for "comments offensive" to Chavez.

Holden left Chavez criticism to a single sentence:

There are no serious interviews with the poor to determine how everyday lives have changed under these socialist governments, and there is no mention of the human rights abuses in Venezuela reported by Amnesty International.

Holden left out plenty. Chavez arrested Judge María Lourdes Afiuni for a ruling that displeased him (she had freed a businessman who had supported opposition politicians), as the Times itself reported on April 4, "Criticism of Chavez Stifled by Arrests." Reporter Simon Romero added:

Twenty to 30 Venezuelans, including Judge Afiuni, are now imprisoned here because of their political activity or for reasons connected to publicly contradicting Mr. Chávez's wishes, said Rocío San Miguel, a legal scholar here who leads a nongovernmental group that monitors Venezuelan security.

Holden argued that "South of the Border" "is a valuable, if naïvely idealistic, introductory tutorial on a significant international trend." Ever the socialist idealist, Holden concluded: "It ultimately proffers the vision of a pan-South American union that is economically and politically strong enough to realize the Bolivarian dream."

Clay Waters is director of Times Watch. You can follow him on Twitter.