Postcards from Panama

NORIEGA: God’s Favorite.


At one time, the General Manuel Antonio Noriega Story had the makings of a potential camp masterpiece. With Al Pacino as megalomaniac dictator Noriega and Oliver Stone as megalomaniac director Oliver Stone, the film project showed promise of being an over-the-top polemical gargoyle in the garishly grand tradition of The Green Berets, Scarface, or even Mommy Dearest. But in 1994 Stone and Pacino, citing budget problems, abandoned the project, and screenwriter Lawrence Wright started drafting a novel – until Showtime called. Shrunk to tube-size (at one-tenth the cost), the film is now directed by journeyman Roger Spottiswoode and Noriega-ed by honorable but preposterously miscast Bob Hoskins. Noriega: God’s Favorite still approaches middling-to-high camp territory, but alas, it is only the silliest cinemazation of history since, oh, the Rambo films. (Now there would have been inspired casting, Sly Stallone as Noriega: “Come and get me, gringos!” As much as poor Hoskins reaches heroically for dictatorial decadence, he looks throughout like a lost Cockney on holiday in Mallorca.)

Scheduled for broadcast this month (to coincide with the release of Wright’s novel, titled simply God’s Favorite – readers are presumably expected to need fewer hints), the film received its big-screen premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, where Wright lives. Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker; his non-fiction books include the admirable Saints and Sinners (1993) and Remembering Satan (1994), Twins (1997), and a memoir rooted in his Dallas youth, In the New World (1988). He collaborated on the screenplay for Edward Zwick’s The Siege (1998). He is listed as “executive producer” of Noriega, and he takes a cameo as the Florida prosecutor who, from the courthouse steps, calls down President Bush’s wrath on Panama. God’s Favorite is his first novel.

Ostensibly a fictional version of events in Panama from September 1985 (when Noriega opponent Dr. Hugo Spadafora was assassinated) and 1989 (when the U.S. invaded Panama and captured Noriega), God’s Favorite attempts to create a universe familiar to readers of Graham Greene: brutal corruption, dark plots, sinister betrayals, outraged innocence, international intrigue, imperial machinations. But Wright has no convincing characters on which to hang his perfervid atmospherics, and his pint-size centerpiece – the acne-scarred little General known to his enemies as “Pineapple Face” – is a grossly buffoonish cartoon. Citing the culturally Catholic Noriega’s dabbling in Buddhism and Santería, Wright has described him as a “wicked man desperately looking for salvation.” But despite all the novelist’s straining for significance, his Noriega comes off as no more than what he was: a ruthless military thug and double-dealer with imperial sponsors, allowed to hold power as long as he remained useful, discarded when he became a political liability.

There is some of this potted history in God’s Favorite – but all in the service of farce, little of that farce intended. Oliver North gets a walk-on, schmoozing about Nicaragua on the General’s yacht (the topless stewardesses distract poor Ollie, but he does admit Noriega’s offer to slaughter the Sandinista leadership is “a neat idea”). Fidel Castro makes an appearance in the Havana Copacabana, as a presumed informal mediator between the Colombian drug cartels and the hapless General: Castro not only makes a pass at Noriega’s wife, he sticks him with the check. The U.S. generals in charge of Panama can’t seem to keep the local players straight, and they miss a perfect chance at a bloodless coup because they’re just not paying attention. One suspects, somewhere in the margins, an invocation of the ghost of Evelyn Waugh, but it all reads like downmarket Tom Clancy. Bad Tom Clancy.

There is even a baroque Vatican subplot, in the form of the Papal Nuncio at whose residence Noriega accepted sanctuary before his capture. The Nuncio is a cosmopolitan, skeptical sort, who keeps a jaundiced eye on things for Rome, debates theology with Noriega, and mentors Father Jorge, the barrio priest who acts as the book’s bumbling moral conscience and who even hears Noriega’s confession before he surrenders to the Americans. (In the film, Tony’s confession is the movie – a hoary melodramatic device so unbelievable it should require supplementary absolution.) The Nuncio delivers a few poignant moments – his superiors in Rome just don’t understand the complexity of Panamanian politics and they won’t increase his overburdened budget even a teensy little bit – and a few bits of juicy dialogue. Asked by an out-of-favor Noriega henchman to take spiritual action against the General, the Nuncio replies thoughtfully, “It wouldn’t be very diplomatic for the papal nuncio to exorcise the leader of the country to which he is assigned.”

The real spiritual action is with Noriega’s “witch doctor” Gilbert Blancarte, the “famous Argentine psychic” who provides Tony with voodoo dolls and potions and provides the movie with its most hysterical moments of pop-gothic trances, astral fits, and sinister chickenfeather rituals, held in sort of a black-light version of Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse. Fickle disciple that he is, Tony eventually turns on Gilbert (“You’re nothing but a fag with a towel on his head!”) when he doesn’t get the prophetic reassurance he craves. In a scene Hoskins will no doubt replay in his nightmares, the distraught Tony counsels instead with the bottled head of Hugo Spadafora, unfortunately mislaid by its rightful owner in the first moments of the book (and film). Hugo’s role in both fictions is, understandably, mostly offstage, but Wright does grant him a surrogate romance, in the form of hooker-cum-hairdresser-with-heart-of-gold Gloria Sánchez, whose delinquent son Teo may in fact be the rightful heir to the democratic throne of Panama. Father Jorge has his pastoral eye on Teo, but the priest’s, er, affections keep drifting toward Gloria, as in a tender moment when she gives him a haircut (in Panama, everybody needs a trade to fall back on).

His nerves were so acute that he could feel her touch even before her fingers actually reached him. He could feel her hands moving in the air.

He could also feel the throbbing in his penis, which was like a gorilla pounding its chest. He closed his eyes and made a quick plea to God to put the beast to sleep.

In the Panamanian jungle, the gorilla sleeps tonight. Not so Tony Noriega, whose clownishly unconvincing persona in Wright’s overheated prose is a sneering, pock-faced monster of pop depravity absurdly coupled with a profane New Age philosopher.

Rather than spend her time trying to sort out the fitful wheat from all this maladroit chaff, the inventive reader might better spend her time creating out of God’s Favorite a game of Twenty Questions:

Q: While U.S. diplomats stood listening, what did Tony tell Leona Helmsley when he stayed in her New York hotel?

Tony’s audience sat blankly as he murmured several indiscreet proposals. “You know, I love you very much,” he finally said, grasping his balls emphatically. (Not content with such literary subtlety, Spottiswoode has Hoskins enthusiastically hump the empty air.)

Q: What does Tony do when his plane encounters turbulence? He prays, vomits (missing the barf bag), and then goes up front to visit the pilot:

His mood improved. He reached over and put his hand on César’s thigh, feeling the alarmed muscular response to his touch.

“I love to fly,” Tony said happily.


“Put it on auto, César,” said Tony. It was an order.

Q: What does Tony see on the surveillance film sent to him by the Colombian drug lords?

Now there was a picture of a man watching television. Tony realized with appalled fascination that he was watching himself – here! In this very room! A clip of Tony masturbating to a Czechoslovakian porno flick!

Q: What philosophical subjects do Tony and Colombian drug boss Pablo Escobar discuss when they meet to negotiate Tony’s payment for rudely closing down a cocaine factory?

“Every religion is full of cranks,” said Escobar. “You can’t put it all on one group. It’s just as likely that the Jews and the Muslims will put an end to things as the Baptists. Hell, the Hindus.”

“Yes [answered Tony], but the Baptists think the apocalypse is coming soon, and they will get to heaven before everybody else. People like this should not be in charge of the American nuclear arsenal.”


Pablo: “I still like fucking. I’d fuck the dog, as a matter of fact.”

Tony: “Of course you would – because you love life and you’re afraid of death like everybody else. It’s perfectly natural. When you’re fucking, you’re saying yes to life, and yet death is the whole point of sexuality. You merge with another person in order to escape the loneliness of existence and the fear of death, but with every sexual act you are reminded of your mortality and the prison of identity.”

“Jeez, Tony, you’re a morbid son of a bitch.”

“There’s only one escape from this existential dilemma. Love. If you really believe in love, you can never be entirely alone.”

Q: What is the nature of the bedroom palaver between Tony and his mistress, Carmen?

Tony: “I saw the white asses in their fancy cars and gigantic homes, but I knew in my heart that little Tony in the streets was smarter, he had bigger balls! And all my life I planned how I would become more powerful than they. It was like a mission from God. So I don’t care that they don’t love Tony! Nobody loves Tony! Even you don’t love me. I know this. But respect. And fear. This is my language. Without power, I don’t exist. Even for you.”

Carmen pulled her hand away. “Honestly, Tony, sometimes I think you’re only fucking me out of revenge.”

Q: Where was Tony when the Americans attacked?

This was the end! Impaled in a whorehouse! Explosions rang in his ears. Then the entire room bounced as if the house were going to leap into the sky. What was happening? A mirror blew off the wall and shattered in the air. Gloria [surely you remember Gloria?] screamed. Everything was exquisitely strange and painful.

And then suddenly the door opened and Nachman stood there, looking at Tony handcuffed to the bed with a broomstick up his ass. Nachman was dazed and covered with a dusting of ceiling plaster. “Shit, Tony – it’s the Americans! They’ve invaded!”

There’s more. Much, much more, but too much is quite enough. (For the record, Bob Hoskins is thankfully preserved from absolute humiliation, and disappointed Showtime watchers will see fugitive Tony only in his underwear.)

Although Lawrence Wright stands first in line, there is obviously plenty of blame to go around for this misbegotten, hyperbolically ridiculous novel, and this grandiose, embarrassingly amateurish movie, neither of which have anything of serious interest to say about Panama’s lamentable recent history nor about Tony Noriega.

But God, it should be said, had nothing to do with it.

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Published at 12:00 am CST