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The Riddle of Noriega

A 'speculative biography' bound for Showtime takes aim at the former Panamanian dictator's complexities.

July 04, 1999|DAVID LAMB | David Lamb is The Times' Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Hanoi

MANILA — In the scruffy second-floor office of an abandoned government building, Gen. Manuel Noriega--well, at least it looks like Noriega--stared out the window, and his eyes went wide. In the yard below, on the rooftop across the way, in a truck and on two armored personnel carriers were 30 soldiers in Panamanian uniforms, their rifles trained squarely on the swarthy, scar-faced general.

"Here he is! Look at the monster!" yelled the rebel officer who had pushed Noriega to the window with his M-16 rifle, and from the courtyard came a chorus of "Kill him! Kill him!" The general dropped to his knees. "Please," he said. "Just give me a minute. Alone. I need to pray."

A light rain fell outside and in the office where Noriega knelt, head bowed; the heat hung heavy. Everyone was sweating. Roger Spottiswoode, the director, mopped his brow and peered at the video monitor over the top of his half-frame glasses. "Cut," he said. "That looked good. But I need some more soldiers up there in the guard tower, and someone has to hold up that traffic outside the gate. And please. Quiet. I simply can't think if 20 of you are talking at once."

And so it was, here in the Philippines, on the 28th day of a five-week shoot, in the second hour of another 18-hour day, that Gen. Noriega--a.k.a. award-winning actor Bob Hoskins, whose resemblance to the deposed general is nothing short of eerie--was, in a manner of speaking, reborn to confront another crisis that would test his tenet of being God's chosen favorite.

Noriega, 65--the real Noriega--wasn't, of course, around to offer Spottiswoode any advice whether this is how it all happened. The "unrepentant criminal," as President George Bush called him, is languishing in a prison outside Miami, serving a 40-year sentence for racketeering, conspiracy and cocaine-smuggling and, one supposes, still smarting over the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama that ended his dictatorship and brought him to trial in the United States.

Before his conviction in 1992, Noriega stood in ramrod-straight military style in a Miami courtroom and railed for three hours against the United States, ridiculing Bush's stated reason for invading Panama: to protect the Panama Canal and the lives of Americans there who were threatened by Noriega.

"There was never any danger to the canal or to American citizens in Panama," said Noriega, who contended he had been a longtime U.S. ally and CIA confidant. "Panama was invaded because I was an obstacle to President Bush, who preferred me dead."

Maybe so. But why make a movie--titled "Noriega: God's Favorite," scheduled for release later this year on Showtime--about this dark and brooding man? After all, he was more a thug than an icon. He was a Buddhist who kept in his office a picture of Hitler next to a statue of the Virgin Mary. His heroes included Moammar Kadafi and Mother Teresa. He killed and tortured people but didn't eat meat because he thought it cruel to slaughter animals. Go figure.

"Before I read the script, my impression of Noriega was the same as everyone else's--that he was a monster, a trumped-up little dictator," said Hoskins, whose role in 1986's "Mona Lisa" earned him a best-actor Academy Award nomination.

"He's a lot more complex and interesting than that. But it's not my job to make a judgment whether the guy is good or evil. My job is to translate the writer's and director's vision. Why did I want the role? Because"--and he winks here--"after I met the director I realized Roger was totally around the bend. Insanity has always attracted me."

Spottiswoode sees the film not as history but as what he calls a "speculative biography." It compresses the last four years of Noriega's dictatorship into two and deals with what might have gone on behind closed doors.

"It's speculative in the sense that this is about what a person might be," Spottiswoode said. "These events did happen. And there was a character in some ways like this."

Like key members of the cast, Spottiswoode (whose credits include "Hiroshima"; the last James Bond thriller, "Tomorrow Never Dies"; and "Under Fire," set during the Nicaraguan revolution) is working for a modest salary on the $5-million film. If "Noriega" lives up to expectations, it may be released in theaters before it plays on cable--something Showtime did with "Gods and Monsters," which won the 1998 Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

"I'm always interested in complicated, strange, dark characters, and that is Noriega," Spottiswoode said. "He's a man from the streets who sort of invented himself. And if you look hard enough into a character like this, I think, in the extreme, we find a heightened vision of ourselves. There but for the grace of God goes us."

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