How the renowned director's latest film distorts history and whitewashes an authoritarian thug.
- By Jeffrey Tayler Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, and the author, most recently, of Murderers in Mausoleums.
Oliver Stone has rarely shied away from highly creative finagling with the truth. The avowedly leftist filmmaker’s 1995 epic Nixon provoked outcries from the Nixon family over its depiction of the former president (as alcoholic and unhinged), as well as detailed objections from Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security advisor and secretary of state. But even the progressive the Guardian has trashed Stone’s work, calling his 1991 JFK a "magic bullet … veering erratically between misconceptions and outright lies in a determined effort to avoid the facts." There has been much more faultfinding of this sort from both liberals and conservatives, but the upshot is that Stone cannot be trusted to present the truth, even when shooting biographies of people who matter.
Stone has countered that his films are meant to spark reflection and cause viewers to "start investigating on [their] own." This surely would be easier for them to do if they weren’t taking his falsehoods and blunders as their starting points. But Nixon and JFK concerned men from decades past whose legacies, for good or ill, are matters of historical record. Not so with Stone’s most recent victim, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In Venezuela, Chávez has been all but deified, and pronounced "more alive than ever" by his chosen heir Nicolás Maduro, who initially announced plans to truss up his corpse and display it, Lenin-style, in a glass tomb. (Maduro waited too long and bungled this macabre project.) Aping Chávez’s style of speech, dress, and mannerisms, and even claiming to have twice received visitations from a little bird reincarnating Chávez, Maduro is now leading his country into an abyss of violence, repression, and economic chaos, all in Chávez’s name, following Chávez’s policies. Now, just at the moment when chavistas need to start reassessing their departed leader and begin thinking critically of the way ahead, Stone has set out to provide Maduro and his cronies with a blank check in the form of his latest bio-documentary, Mi Amigo Hugo. And this is a shame. For the absolute last thing Venezuelans, or anyone else, needs is more Chávez agitprop. (In the photo above, Stone meets Maduro at his presidential palace in December 2013.)
Shot in Spanish for the Caracas-based, mostly Venezuela-funded chavismo propaganda channel Telesur, Mi Amigo Hugo was released on March 5, the one-year anniversary of Chávez’s demise from cancer. In its opening segment, Stone calls his film a "goodbye to a soldier and a friend," meant to evoke "a sense of love, a sense of missing a comrade in Hugo." Unfortunately, Mi Amigo Hugo does much more than merely wax sentimental over a lost "comrade": It whitewashes Chávez’s controversial legacy and offers tender, anodyne depictions of those in Maduro’s inner circle — the very same leaders against whom young Venezuelans, fed up with rampant crime, scarcity, and corruption, have been protesting since mid-February. The embattled opposition leader María Corina Machado has accused her fellow Latin Americans of "turning their backs on" her countrymen in distress. Stone, with Mi Amigo Hugo, does precisely that.
The first half of the movie shows vignettes of Stone and Chávez interacting, mostly through an interpreter, while the former was in Caracas for the premiere of his first pro-Chávez flick, Al Sur de la Frontera. (The Venezuelan president spoke only halting English, and Stone gives no sign of knowing Spanish. In fact, he consistently mispronounces Chávez’s surname as ChavEZ.) Stone is truly infatuated with his subject, and it’s easy to see why. From the opening scene on a hill overlooking Caracas, Chávez comes off as genuine, charismatic, and agile of wit, striving to do what he believes is right. But right for whom? Stone never deals with Chávez’s hostility to the grievances of a large segment of the Venezuelan public, the middle and upper classes — whose political leaders Chávez habitually derided as "fascists," "parasites," "oligarchs," and lackeys of the maligned Yanquis. In dismissing them thus, Chávez poisoned Venezuela’s political atmosphere and rendered dialogue with the opposition impossible. Stone might have explored this but chooses not to. Instead he allows Venezuela’s former vice president, José Vicente Rangel, to explain that Chávez drew his support from "humble folk" previously neglected by the country’s leaders. This is to some extent true, but it is only half the story.
Chávez was a self-abnegating workaholic in an almost perpetual kinetic frenzy — an aspect of his character that seems to fascinate Stone. Through treacly postmortem interviews with aides, we learn that the late president used underarm deodorant, wore no makeup, took showers rather than baths, read compulsively, slept little, and drank far too much coffee, some 30 cups a day. We listen to a female officer at a Bolivarian military academy recount how feminist Chávez was, an assertion Chávez repeats to Stone, calling capitalism and wars machista. Movingly, we watch Chávez, hairless from chemotherapy, confessing to having wept in the hospital’s bathroom upon learning of his cancer diagnosis. And we see him sing Llanero folk ballads in a passable tenor, exuding the flair of a born performer. Had Chávez been an MC and not the leader of a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia, Stone’s panegyric would offer little cause for concern.
But alarm bells soon sound. Stone shows a red-shirted Chávez, fist raised, haranguing a cheering, red-shirted crowd as a fiery, Fidel-style orator; later he depicts Chávez and Castro bantering chummily on the former’s weekly Aló Presidente talk show. Nary a word from Stone about one of the most disturbing aspects of the Chávez regime: its mass import of Cuban military officers and secret service personel to assure that Chávez (and now Maduro) remained in power. All this is fine by Stone, who is blind to the treason implicit in Chávez’s effectively delivering his country to the Cubans. "Venecuba" Chávez would jokingly say, referring to the tight alliance between Venezuela and the Caribbean isle. But he wasn’t joking.
Stone lets Chávez pontificate egomaniacally. The president professes to ignore those who consider him a "tyrant, a pretty bad guy, a pervert," but he "never tires" of being who he is. "Being Chávez lets me vindicate myself in life," declares Chávez. "I will remain Chávez whether I’m president or not…. Every day I become more Chávez…. Chávez is not just a human being, Chávez is a great collective. As the campaign slogan said, Chávez is the people’s heart, and the people are here in Chávez’s heart." Chávez’s speaking of himself in the third person is jarring, and he does it elsewhere in the film too. Stone draws none of the obvious conclusions about what such pronouncements said about Chávez’s perspective, even mental health — matters of vital import in a country under one-man rule.
Stone accepts uncritically Chávez’s declaration that he is lead
ing a "revolution of love, of happiness, of hope." In an unseemly act of ingratiation at a press conference in Caracas, Stone, unbidden, asks his (chavista) audience to renounce the "sport" of criticizing Chávez and "look at the positive changes that have happened economically, that have happened in all of South America because of Chávez, Kirchner," et al. The filmmaker seems not to know that elsewhere on the continent economies are growing without chaotic chavista "revolutions," and, more importantly, without the vast sums of petrodollars Chávez’s regime has had at its disposal almost since it came to power. To be sure, much of that money has been spent on social programs, but it has also accustomed large segments of the population to receiving state support (as well as to voting for Chávez) and fatally distorted the workings of the country’s economy — unpleasant truths with which opponents of Chávez (and now Maduro) have had trouble dealing on the campaign trail. Stone further disgraces himself, announcing that if Chávez wants to stay in power, "he’s welcome to it," since he is popular and, in Venezuela "as in Europe and as in many countries in the world, there are no term limits." Fourteen years was not long enough? Only German Chancellor Helmut Kohl served longer (sixteen years), first as leader of West Germany, then of a unified Germany, but in circumstances in no way comprable to those of Venezuela. These days, stay in power longer than two terms, as a rule, and you venture into dictatorville.
When Stone finally acknowledges that there has been "much criticism" of Chávez — for his "weak" government, his "ill informed" ministers, and for trying to govern "through a personality" — he does so disingenuously, putting these concerns to another Chávez Vice President (and Maduro’s current Foreign Minister), Elías Jaua. Jaua dismisses such cavils as coming from those who would have overthrown Chávez by spreading disinformation. Stone accepts this statement at face value and moves on.
Had Stone critiqued Chávez to his face, the strongman would have no doubt stopped granting him interviews. (For Comandante Castro talked to Stone on the condition that he be allowed to halt filming at any time.) But after Chávez’s death, and with Maduro’s instatement contested as illegitimate by the opposition, Stone could have chosen to be more objective. Indeed, had he felt anything for Venezuela, that was his obligation, in view of the country’s increasingly grave problems: shortages of basic foodstuffs and medicines, 56 percent inflation, paramilitary violence against demonstrators, and a sky-high murder rate.
The current situation in Venezuela offers plenty of room for uncomfortable questions — but Stone is not the one to ask them. "Do you have any suspicions that [Chávez] was murdered?" he asks Maduro — and then switches screens to the answers volunteered by other chavistas. José Rangel Silva responds that Chávez "would have been the first to reject this version [of his death]," as do, for the most part, the other members of Chávez’s team Stone speaks to. But then he swings back around to Maduro, who leaves no doubt: "It was a cancer that behaved atypically … unlike any other cancer known." Stone asks if he will call for an investigation. "When the historic moment arrives," answers Maduro. Stone need hardly query Maduro about who the alleged assassins were.
Stone’s celluloid valedictory to Chávez is beyond redemption, a work of cinematic malpractice that marks him as a "useful idiot" on whom the Maduro regime can count to burnish its tarnished image while ratcheting up repression against the beleaguered opposition.
After bizarrely exhorting chavista journalists to abandon the criticism of Chávez they were surely never making, Stone announces that "It’s time for you [South American] guys to have an evolution in this continent." That "evolution" is happening. It’s being brought about, and no thanks to Stone, by the young people on the streets across Venezuela fighting the Maduro regime. If anything, Mi Amigo Hugo shows that it’s Stone who needs to evolve.