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Oliver Stone’s Doc Portrait of Brazil’s President

Oliver Stone’s Doc Portrait of Brazil’s President

Oliver Stone has always had one eye pointed south of the U.S. border.

It began with his phenomenal script for Brian De Palma’s Scarface, which transformed the famous Chicago gangster into a hardened Cuban refugee. After that, Stone directed the photojournalist saga Salvador, about the deadly civil war that gripped El Salvador in the 1980s. And later on he made a handful of documentaries about Latin American leaders, two of them featuring Fidel Castro and another one including such leftist figureheads as Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales.

Lula

The Bottom Line

Coups and conspiracies galore.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Cast: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Glenn Greenwald, Oliver Stone
Directors: Oliver Stone, Rob Wilson
Screenwriters: Kurt Mattila, Alexis Chavez

1 hour 30 minutes

Stone’s fascination with the dirty politics and violent class struggles of the southern hemisphere seems to perfectly align with the dramatic twists and nonstop conspiracies present in much of his other fictional work, from J.F.K. to Nixon to W to Snowden. In the director’s world, which he argues is ours as well, leaders are either corruptible or taken down by the corrupt, while democracy’s existence is threatened by a powerful deep state that includes multinationals, spies, far-right zealots and shadowy middlemen.

It all sounds like a good airport novel, and yet according to Stone much of it is real. It comes as no surprise, then, that he’s decided to chronicle the rollercoaster-like rise, fall and resurrection of current Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose rags-to-riches-to-jail-to-freedom story reads like a movie script Stone could have penned himself. And it’s even one that comes with a happy, Hollywood-style ending where truth ultimately triumphs over adversity, at least for the time being.

Co-directed by Stone and Rob Wilson, Lula is nothing new in terms of form. Employing oodles of archive footage, a nonstop voiceover by Stone that explains everything to us at all times, and a long interview conducted with Lula during his campaign for reelection in 2022, the film plays like an exhausting rapid-fire crash course in contemporary Brazilian politics.

The doc’s first half tracks Lula’s remarkable ascent from impoverished child in the countryside, where he was raised along with six other siblings by a single mother, to his stint as a trained steel worker, during which he lost his pinky in an accident, to his rise to powerful union leader and founder of the Workers’ Party. In 2002 he ran a popular campaign that united the nation and got him elected president, joining a coterie of Latin American leaders, including Chávez and Morales, emerging from indigenous backgrounds or working-class families who rose to the highest offices in their lands.

None of this information will feel new to anyone who’s followed Brazil over the past few decades, which is why Lula only gets interesting when we arrive at the second half. It’s then that the filmmakers delve into the nationwide scandal that resulted in the former president’s arrest and imprisonment in 2017, opening the door for unhinged far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro (known as the “Tropical Trump”) to win the next election.

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At first, many Brazilians believed that the massive government crackdown on corruption, called Operation Car Wash (the name already sounds like the next Oliver Stone project), was a legitimate and necessary enterprise spearheaded by up-and-coming federal judge, Sergio Moro. Lula was eventually detained along with other officials in the sweep, then sentenced to jail for bribery and related charges, which prevented him from running for reelection in 2018. The fact that the acting Brazilian president at the time, Dilma Rousseff, also one of Lula’s principal allies, named him as chief of staff in order to grant the former president some form of legal immunity appeared a little fishy to some as well.

But this is a Stone film, and so things are never what they seem on the surface. With the help of investigative news source The Intercept and its founder Glenn Greenwald, who talks to the director throughout the later scenes, we learn that Operation Car Wash was, in fact, a vast conspiracy as well — one fueled by right wingers and corporations, whether in Brazil or the U.S, who were uhappy with the progressive social and economic policies that Lula implemented during his decade in power.

It all sounds too movie-ish to be true, but the documentary provides evidence (albeit quickly — it’s best to read The Intercept for more detail), backed by both Greenwald’s and Lula’s testimony. In their opinion, Brazil is just the latest in a long line of Latin American countries targeted by American intervention, whether it was during the Cold War’s various CIA-sponsored coups (including the one in Brazil in 1964) or what’s best described today as “lawfare,” where trials and investigations can result in bloodless regime change.

There are, of course, similar pre-election trials going on in the U.S. right now — a fact Stone himself mentioned in a recent interview when discussing this latest work. The “lawfare” argument, whether you ultimately buy it or not, is one of the more intriguing takeaways from Lula, and the director tries to place it within the greater context of American foreign policy, where trade and commerce often counts more than preserving global democracy. (The other takeaway is that Lula believed George W. Bush was a better president to deal with than Barack Obama, even if he didn’t agree with the former’s politics.)

For those who despise Lula — and there are still many such people in Brazil, where, after his release from prison, he was re-elected by a narrow 50.9% — this movie will only seem to be preaching to the choir, omitting certain facts that others have reported over the years. As informative as they can be at times, you have to take Stone’s documentaries with a grain of salt: He isn’t a journalist, but a filmmaker with certain convictions, whether political or thematic, that he tries to convey in every movie he makes.

He also seem to love hanging around powerful men, whether it’s the affable Lula here or less affable types like Vladimir Putin, whom Stone spoke to at length for a four-part Showtime series. The director is something of a powerful man himself, at least in the movie world, and he often appears onscreen alongside the leaders themselves. That Stone uses his power to chronicle what he believes are worthy causes, or to talk about politicians he admires, is to his credit. But there’s also something amiss when every new documentary he makes feels like “an Oliver Stone Film” in all senses of the term.

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