The Riddle of Noriega

David Lamb is The Times' Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Hanoi

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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Spottiswoode admits that Showtime is taking a risk on the project. Political films are a tough sell in the first place; "Noriega" deals with a period of history most Americans have forgotten, and the general himself is hardly an endearing figure. Besides, how is the audience meant to react to this man who was as charming as he was cruel, as complex as he was simple?

"I think we're going to be blamed for not making up our minds," Spottiswoode said. "But that doesn't bother me. It's far too simple to just portray him as a thug who bullied his way to power."

Indeed, almost everything about Noriega and his rise to power is a contradiction. Born out of wedlock, he was abandoned by his mother when he was just 5; he grew up an orphan in the slums of Panama. He was ugly as all get-out and always with beautiful women. He was brutal and ruthless, and foreign leaders paid him homage. He was a man of religious faith and a witch doctor. Drug lords gave him millions in protection money only to find their businesses destroyed by his treachery. But Noriega didn't worry. He was a survivor and was convinced he was blessed with good fortune because God had chosen him as a favorite son.

The script started taking form while Lawrence Wright (now a staff writer for the New Yorker) was watching CNN at his home in Austin, Texas. It was 1989 and American troops had surrounded the papal nunciature in Panama where Noriega had taken refuge. They were trying to get him to surrender by driving him crazy with rock music blasting at ear-splitting decibels. Wright was struck by the seriousness and the absurdity of the drama and asked himself: "I wonder what's going on, what people are saying inside the nunciary?"

Wright made two trips to Panama and tried to turn Noriega's final months into a play. It didn't work. He fiddled with a novel, struggled to rewrite the play, and finally set the whole project aside for two years. Then he tried a movie script and something magical happened. The words flew out of his computer. In three weeks he was done. Never had writing been easier or more fun.

"I was interested in Noriega from the moment of the invasion," Wright said. "He was full of so many contradictions. For one thing, he was actively seeking spiritual resolution, and that called to me as a writer. Despite the terrible things he did, he was a man looking for love and forgiveness.

"Did I want to meet him for my research? It was tempting, but that would have made me a journalist. I wanted to be free to create my own characters and take real events and imagine how they must have happened."

Wright's script caused a buzz in Hollywood and got him some writing jobs but no Noriega film. Too political, no good-guy hero, past history, the skeptics scoffed. Producer Nancy Hardin had the script for seven years before she found a willing risk-taker: Showtime, which was greatly influenced by Spottiswoode's interest in directing.

"I think you can safely say everyone in Hollywood saw the script--cable, all the independent film distribution companies, people at the studios who I thought had the sensibilities for a project like this," Hardin said. "A lot of people who read it said, 'Geez, this is really great.' But when push came to shove. . . ."

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Now it's a month into filming. Manila's Agustin Church has been used as both the nunciature in Panama and the Copacabana nightclub in Havana. The presidential suite at the venerable Manila Hotel--Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters during World War II--has served as the Helmsley Park Lane hotel in New York. And the abandoned office building--once the home of the national lottery--where Noriega is pushed to the window at gunpoint has been emptied by the Showtime crew of tons of trash, a few dead pigeons and stacks of years-old newspapers.

In the second-floor room that has been remodeled as a replica of Noriega's Panama office, art director Colin Gibson, shirtless in the breathless heat, is breaking the windows with a hammer and singeing the Venetian blinds with a candle. They soon will look as though they had been blown away by bullets.

Wright, hunched over a glass-topped table nearby, is tapping away on his computer, polishing his novel on Noriega's last years that Simon & Schuster will publish to coincide with the movie's release. A stack of Uzis and M-16s is on the floor by his laptop.

Hoskins has survived another grinding Manila traffic jam--taking an hour-plus to get to the portside set from the Mandarin Hotel, four miles away--and in a tattered trailer outside he's paying his daily 90-minute dues as makeup supervisor Nick Dudman turns him into Noriega: false teeth, contact lenses, a black curly-haired wig fitted over his bald head, three layers of latex to transform his face into an acne-scarred mess.

"The heat and humidity here create real problems with the makeup," Dudman says. "On top of that, Bob sweats profusely. So we had to invent something new for his facial makeup. The only place I could find the material I needed for it was in Switzerland."

One of the intriguing aspects of the film is that everyone seems to come away with a different impression of Noriega. Some find him despicable, some amusing, some an appealing but wickedly flawed character. To Nestor Carbonell--known to TV audiences as Luis Riviera, a magazine photographer in NBC's "Suddenly Susan" series--it matters a great deal that few people are likely to view Noriega favorably after seeing "God's Favorite."

"There's something personal to me in this role," said Carbonell, a Harvard graduate raised in New York. His parents left Cuba in 1960. His father fought in the Bay of Pigs. One uncle was assassinated by Fidel Castro's forces, another was imprisoned. "I know too much about Central American dictators," he said, "and I leave this project thinking Noriega was a terribly evil man. If he had been portrayed otherwise, I would not have been happy."

Finally, assistant director Cellin Gluck, who can chew out the tardy and the inattentive in four languages, including Farsi and Japanese, has everyone back in Noriega's second-floor office. Hoskins--forever cheerful and jocular regardless of the hour or work schedule--is by his desk when Carbonell, playing Major Giroldi, leader of the coup that eventually fails, bursts in the door with his rebel followers.

Hoskins is again forced to the window at gunpoint. The soldiers outside are yelling for his head, as they have through six rehearsals and two takes, and after Spottiswoode says, "Cut!" Hoskins eyes them all and, slipping back into his cockney accents, shouts out with a smile, "Shut up!"

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