The hair-raising career of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega surpassed even the surreal creations of many Latin American novelists, making him a natural movie subject — a fact fully appreciated by the makers of “Noriega: God’s Favorite.” Casting of Brit Bob Hoskins as the pint-sized strongman may make one pause (and some casting advocates for Latino actors may feel more strongly), but it proves to be project’s master stroke, as perf recalls in its range of colors Hoskins’ besieged crime boss in “The Long Good Friday.” Strangely passed over by domestic distribs, pic rolls out April 2 on cabler Showtime after cursory fest exposure and will deliver respectable B.O. abroad and solid video numbers.
A film that avoids turning a potentate into a cartoon while generating wild humor from a political drama with profound stakes, “Noriega” reps an exceptional case of a screenwriter effectively dramatizing a living historical figure. Scenarist Lawrence Wright waited years for his script to be filmed, and, while it deserved more energy, style and heft than helmer Roger Spottiswoode (“Under Fire”) can provide, it is a consistently surprising and interesting biopic strengthened by vigorous top-to-bottom casting.
Events of 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and subsequent circus atmosphere surrounding Noriega’s downfall rep a sufficiently distant memory to provide pic with an extra layer of dramatic freedom, though the dictator himself is outrageous enough that tweaking facts is hardly necessary.
Muddled opening intercuts Noriega confessing to a priest and boasting that he’s always been blessed, with swooping moving shots in a jungle leading to a scene of torture. More assured tone, though, is quickly set in an amusing bedroom scene as the dictator’s mistress Vicky Amador (Rosa Blasi) insists on a trip to Paris, but without Mrs. Noriega (Denise Blasor) in tow.
Blissfully unaware how ridiculous he looks in a banana-colored jumpsuit for his “foreign affairs” trip to his Swiss doctor and bank and to a New York meeting with George Bush aides, Noriega is just this side of being too comical to be taken seriously, yet serious enough to know exactly how to take care of business — which includes beheading populist leader and chief critic Hugo Spadafora.
Pic is far stronger at depicting the increasing madness overtaking the inner sanctums of power than the rising chaos in the streets, and it’s this lack of larger scope that lends project a pinched, budget-starved feeling. Same script in the hands of a visionary director might have produced something astonishing, but there is such a variety of scenes and situations here that one is hardly left unsatisfied.
Story ranges from Noriega enduring Swiss doctor’s skin treatments for his nasty acne condition (subsequent bandaging is absurd yet real, a perfect visual icon for entire pic) to lecturing at, of all places, Harvard, while we’re let in on hilarious latenight confabs with Fidel Castro (Michael Sorich) and a perfectly dramatized scene on a yacht where Noriega argues with Oliver North (Edward Edwards) while entertaining bikinied babes.
In sophisticated and hardly noticeable ways, there’s a suspenseful rise in the parallel dramas of Noriega’s private life, involving his wife and Vicky, and his impossible public life — how does one, after all, stay on the CIA’s payroll while at the same time doing business with Castro, Moammar Gadhafi, Colombian drug lords and small-time dealers?
Wright is particularly adept at finding the larger idea in the specific, such as a dealer (David Marshall Grant) meeting with Noriega, whose full contradictions come through in a swift two-minute exchange. Wisdom of casting a thesp with Hoskins’ long list of Shakespearean credits comes through in such scenes, and pic is packed with them.
While biopics often must toy with sequencing of actual events to give narrative shape and flow, this one hardly needs to, since a seemingly climactic event — the bloody coup attempt staged by conflicted Major Giroldi (Nestor Carbonell) — tricks the viewer into thinking drama is about to wrap up.
This is Spottiswoode’s most successful sequence, a stunning roundelay of guns, nerves, conscience and cowardice that visually provides more insight into the densely complex Latin American military tradition than would any number of books.
Inevitable U.S. invasion feels unfortunately puny here, when it was in fact massive and terrifying, but pic still finds absurd moments, as when U.S. paratroopers drop down on the hood of Noriega’s escape car and don’t even know what they’ve hit. The final faceoff between U.S. troops and the Vatican embassy where the dictator is holed up is satisfyingly played out, serving up a mix of religious duplicity, brute force and the difficult choices made by a good man like the Vatican’s Nuncio (Jeffrey Demunn).
On both technical and emotional levels, Hoskins is utterly inside Noriega’s pockmarked skin, incidentally delivering a perfect, deep-bass-toned Spanish accent. His support is uniformly fine, from Blasi and Blasor as his feuding women to Tony Plana’s once-loyal Colonel, Carbonell’s fatally indecisive officer and Demunn’s worldly Vatican rep. Thesps make every moment count, even when they’re brief ones, as with Luis Avalos’ disgraced president, Grant’s dealer, Sorich’s unctuous Castro and Edwards’ ramrod North.
Pic will look great on small screen but should be seen on a big one, where d.p. Pierre Mignot’s work shines. Tech work is just above average, but soundtrack is outstanding, blending an array of selected tracks from such work as mystical Brit composer John Tavener and Zbigniew Preisner’s music for various Kieslowski films.