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Oliver Stone, a man you can respect even as you shake your head

July 2, 2010 |  5:44 pm

Border
Why wait for September to cause a ruckus when you can get one going today? That might be the mantra for Oliver Stone and his (sometimes) good-natured rabble-rousing.

Stone will get the Fox News set agitated (his publicity team hopes) with his indictment of the financial system in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" in the fall. But in the meantime, he has a new documentary titled "South of the Border” — a shameless if genial piece of agitprop about leftist leaders in South America and Cuba — that opens this weekend in Los Angeles (with a few scattered protests thrown in for good measure).

In the film, Stone crisscrosses South America lobbing mainly gentle questions at six leftist leaders. It’s a survey course of modern Latin American politicians and their relationship with America and Americans, but after a fashion; those hoping for context on the opposition or even the people these leaders govern will be forced to look elsewhere.

For his part, Stone says that the point of the film is not to explore every wrinkle in modern Latin American society but to offer a cinematic corrective to stateside perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. “This issue is much larger than these six countries,” Stone said in an interview. “We’re still subscribing to the Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz doctrine of unilateral control of the world. Obama is a puppet president in that regard.”

Stone has been on a barnstorming tour the last few months, screening the film for government leaders in Madrid, tastemakers in New York, peasants in the rural Bolivian city of Cochabamba and, earlier this week, in L.A. for the Hollywood set (a set including Barbra Streisand, Fox chief Tom Rothman and the director Brett Ratner, to name a few). Our full story on Stone runs in Sunday's paper, but you can read the piece, about Stone's adventures with Latin American leaders, online today.

Writing about Stone is something of an adventure in its own right, as the story seems to change even as you try to report it. Just before the L.A. screening,  the New York Times ran a piece calling out Stone for what it termed "mistakes, misstatements and missing details," for whitewashing the leaders’ records and for self-selecting experts. Stone and his two researchers responded with a detailed, 1,750-word blog post laying out why these were not mistakes and calling the article a “very dishonest attempt to discredit the film.” At the screening, producers were still visibly angry about the piece, noting that the writer, the paper’s longtime Latin American expert Larry Rohter, was not to be trusted because he had rightist sympathies. Several days later, Rohter rifled back. Two days after that, Stone's camp returned fire once more. And so it goes.

Critics of the film aren't completely misguided. For all the research that went into the film, noticeably missing are questions even high-schoolers would want answered. (A producer says that some tougher questions could be included on a DVD of “South of the Border.”)

Still, after witnessing Stone on the stump over a period of six weeks — in Cannes last month for “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and now for “South of the Border” — it's hard not to have a certain respect for him. Few Hollywood directors show this kind of intellectual combativeness or conviction, and even when Stone comes off as cringingly off-base, it’s difficult not to admire the feistiness and wonkiness of a man who could just as easily collect his studio paycheck and go home. But there he is at screenings all over the world, rattling off statistics about GDP, oil production and economic inequities. It's a cheerful skepticism — and a numbers-laden answer to every question — that's hard to dislike.

-- Steven Zeitchik

http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Oliver Stone and Hugo Chavez. Credit: "South of the Border"