An amazing movie about the downfall of scrappy Panamanian strongman Manuel "Tony" Noriega, "Noriega: God's Favorite" looked great on the big screen of the Granada Theatre, where the Roger Spottiswoode-directed film premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Alas, despite its availability to distributors, the less than-$6
million production has not landed a theatrical deal. It is set to air April 2 on Showtime.
Although more festival showcases are certainly in order, most of the intended mature audience will discover the project's many virtues over time through cable play dates and a long ancillary shelf life. Written by journalist and nonfiction author Lawrence Wright, adapting his just-published debut novel "God's Favorite", "Noriega" stars Bob Hoskins
in another superb performance -- arguably his greatest yet -- with a well-picked supporting cast of veterans and relatively unfamiliar faces.
Starting with the torture and murder of Noriega's well-known foe Hugo Spadafora in 1985 and climaxing with the general's seeking shelter from American soldiers and outraged Panamanians inside the Vatican Embassy, "Noriega" is a wild tale that many potential viewers are probably not fully acquainted with.
The filmmakers and Wright make no promises of accuracy on every detail, conversation, date or even names and faces. But in the tradition of art "re-imagining" reality, "Noriega" is a major success, bringing to a potentially wide audience a film that is literate, challenging, even a tad controversial in its occasionally sympathetic portrayal of the "Little General".
Intricately constructed around the spiritual and international crisis Noriega confronts when the invasion of 1989 ends his corrupt career -- using a fictional confession to periodically provide insights into the protagonist's complex mind -- "Noriega" is intelligently lurid, unabashedly funny and sickeningly violent.
It holds too many oddities and subtle storytelling flourishes to begin to do justice to a one-of-a-kind experience that, for example, features a sunny scene on a boat with Gen. Tony, a bevy of topless girls and Oliver North
) talking about their troubles with Contras and Colombians.
Or, if that's not wicked enough, there's the scene where tough chit-chatting Fidel Castro (Michael Sorich
) sticks Tony with the bill at an intimate summit in a Havana nightclub.
An alcoholic despot whose primary beliefs are "forget the past" and that God has given him extraordinary luck, Tony is a big, bad, bisexual barrio boy turned "tin-pot fascist," with a sultry mistress (Rosa Blasi
), a witch doctor, loyal second in command Roberto (Tony Plana
), who "knows too much," and, last but not least, a jealous wife (Denise Blasor).
After the Spadafora affair, Noriega drives Panamanian President Nicky Balretta (Luis Avalos) to resign and also banishes Roberto, while making a big show of holding elections. As the forces of betrayed drug lords, American intelligence and military and his own internal critics close in, Noriega brutally overturns the results of the election and stops a coup by Roberto's replacement (Nestor Carbonell
) in its tracks with a well-placed phone call and his own fierce personality -- a tremendous sequence that Hoskins pulls off spectacularly.
With an excellent soundtrack of Latin-flavored songs and instrumentals, the well-paced, entirely absorbing scenario concludes with Noriega and a savvy papal nuncio (Jeffrey Demunn) enduring the U.S. military's barrage of hard-rock music in a bizarre standoff.
And Tony's story is not over yet, we learn in the finale. Convicted of racketeering and drug trafficking and serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison in Miami, Noriega is eligible for parole this year.
Filmed in the Philippines, the production is first-rate in all regards. Pierre Mignot
's cinematography, Owen Paterson
's production design and Florence-Isabelle Megginson's costumes work together magically to help fully realize the perceptive, at times playful, cinematic ministerings of Spottiswoode ("Tomorrow Never Dies", Showtime's "Hiroshima").
NORIEGA: GOD'S FAVORITE
Showtime and Regency Enterprises present
A Nancy Hardin/Industry
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Screenwriter: Lawrence Wright
Producer: Nancy Hardin
Executive producers: Arnon Milchan
Nick Wechsler, Roger Spottiswoode
Director of photography: Pierre Mignot
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Editor: Mark Conte
Costume designer: Florence-Isabelle Megginson
Casting: Judith Holstra
Manuel "Tony" Noriega: Bob Hoskins
Papal nuncio: Jeffrey Demunn
Roberto: Tony Plana
Maj. Giroldi: Nestor Carbonell
Vicky: Rosa Blasi
Felicidad: Denise Blasor
President Nicky Barletta: Luis Avalos
Running time -- 120 minutes
No MPAA rating