Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Ten: The Screenwriter

The tenth installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a look a the life of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan military leader who seceded from the Spanish Empire, through an interview with screenwriter, Timothy J. Sexton…

by: Christian Niedan

Screen versions of momentous historic events benefit from having longer runtimes. That extra time allows for characters to be more fully developed, and for their acts to carry greater weight and importance for viewers. To that end, for my money, the best screen portrayal of the United States founding fathers is the 2008 HBO miniseries, John Adams. Over its seven parts and 500 minutes, series screenwriter Kirk Ellis (utilizing David McCullough’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning book) showcases nuanced versions of Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and others who were intimately involved in the U.S. seceding from Great Britain in 1776, and the fifty years that followed.

Perhaps the most understated performance of John Adams’ founding fathers belongs to the most famous of them all: George Washington. As portrayed by David Morse, the physically imposing Continental Army general and first U.S. president is a man of few carefully chosen words. Yet, over multiple episodes, viewers see how Washington’s quietly commanding presence, and a pragmatic a-political party-shunning approach to the presidency, kept the new country’s government united during its tumultuous early years.

In the decades after Washington’s death in 1799, South America saw the ascension of his founding father equivalent: Simón Bolívar. Dubbed “El Liberador” in 1813, while leading republican forces against colonial Spain, Bolívar would eventually establish the first union of independent nations in Central/South America (Gran Colombia) — covering modern Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, northern Brazil, and Panama. Bolívar‘s story is an important and complicated one that could easily fill out the runtime of an event miniseries. However, John Adams’ 500 minutes were funded by a $100 million budget, and aired on America’s premiere cable network for drama, HBO. Those two elements are rare. So, without those benefits, 2014’s 120-minute Simón Bolívar biopic, The Liberator was bound to be a smaller-budgeted movie seen by fewer viewers. Yet, that does not diminish the ambition and quality of a film built around the talented Edgar Ramirez portraying the George Washington of South America.

Ironically, Ramirez’s most-honored prior performance was for portraying notorious Venezuelan terrorist, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez in the 2010 film/miniseries, Carlos. Though it has long and short cuts, I firmly believe the 310+ minute former version gives a properly lengthy (yet, gripping) insight into the infamous and diverse globetrotting crime career (between 1973-1994) of the man known to history as “The Jackal.”

Ahead of The Liberator’s U.S. theatrical run, I interviewed its screenwriter, Timothy J. Sexton for my film website, Camera In The Sun. Sexton had previously shared an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on 2006’s Children of Men, and shared a primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special for his work on 2002’s Live From Baghdad. During our interview, Sexton discussed his crash course approach to learning the story of a continental founding father.

Timothy J. Sexton: “When the project was mentioned to me as an idea, I realized how ignorant I was about this life. It became my mission to basically set the gap in my education, and come to know this really important cat in South American history.

I went to Venezuela for two months to research this life, and on the day I landed in Venezuela, I was the most ignorant person about the life of Simón Bolívar in that country. The taxi driver had a much broader view of Bolívar than I did. But what I found is that everyone’s had their own interpretation of this guy. Which made it sort of daunting, because he’s still very much a living concept. But it gave me a certain freedom, because like anyone else, I was allowed my own interpretation. There’s not a monolithic version of Bolívar.”

I asked Sexton if he utilized any of Bolívar’s surviving writings to fill out his interpretation.

Sexton: “Concepts, but not writing. Initially, I thought I would be able to lift some of the speeches, or some of his writings. But ultimately, they’re of a very specific time. And while the ideas may be powerful, it makes the whole enterprise feel dated. So with the exception of a few passages from the Carta De Jamaica, I invented all of those speeches. That being said, they’re based on concepts that existed in his thought. But I created a modern vernacular for him.

[I created friendships] based on known relationships that he did have with what we call people of color. There was a very close relationship to the woman that kind of became his de facto mother, Hipolita. He could kind of move easily through those worlds. Also, as part of his journey, he was the biggest slaveholder on the continent when he started. Ultimately, he evolved to this idea of everyone participating to some degree. He still definitely comes from an elite background. But he saw how that time of slavery was coming to an end. He was one of the first to really see the possibility of all of these different peoples coming together.”

That cohesion would prove elusive. The fragile alliance of personalities that now controlled the newly independent and sprawling lands, which Bolívar presided over, relied on “El Liberador” as a Washington-like keystone for bureaucratic structural cohesion. So, when Bolívar died in office in 1830, Gran Colombia collapsed from lack of that keystone, which his force of personality and authority had provided. This single death of a lynchpin leader had historic ramifications — a phenomenon which Sexton was already familiar with. Before The Liberator, he had written a screenplay about Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, who destabilized the Aztec empire by capturing and killing its emperor, Moctezuma II in 1520 (then, executing successor Cuauhtemoc in 1525). This led to the conquest of what is now Mexico, and kickstarting Spanish dominion over Central and South America for the 300 years leading up to Bolívar’s “liberation.”

Sexton: “I think ultimately, Bolívar felt that this unification could only be brought about with someone who had a vision at the top — a certain strength that all could look toward. It’s interesting, because a lot of our modern day references to this are people we throw into this strong-arm dictator role — whether it be Tito in Yugoslavia, or Hussein in Iraq. And when these guys go, those unions crumble. I would say what distinguishes Bolívar is this idea of inclusion from the get-go. Who knows how it plays out if he doesn’t die, and he’s able to manage all these countries together. But he had a big dream, and he had a love of humanity also. The man who loved music, and the man who loved dance, loved to eat. I mean, he had a sensual love of life. He’s a guy who lost everyone close to him at a very young age — lost his mother, lost his father, lost his wife. He was also a man who from the moment of the loss of the first wife, never married. And yet, his ultimate goal was to create this great family of countries in South America. He kind of took the goal of family to a mega level, and sacrificed it on a personal level.”

Like George Washington, Sexton noted that Bolívar has become a convenient blank slate upon which succeeding generations had pasted various ideals — an identity aided by El Liberador’s unfulfilled potential.

Sexton: “The end of [Bolívar’s] life was the end of a dream of a unified continent that would be cohered by philosophical and humanitarian ideals, and could compete economically with the other developing powers. There’s a Quixotic quest to his life that was ultimately unrealized and tragic.

The use of Bolívar began in the 1820s, and continues to this day. In a way, he’s a malleable concept. You can look to Bolívar as a champion of human rights, if that’s your worldview. You can look to Bolívar as a pragmatic unifier of states, if that’s your worldview.”


Author’s Note (Update): Amidst intensifying pressure on the government of Venezuela under President Nicolas Maduro, Forbes writer Kenneth Rapoza wrote the January 29th, 2019 article, “In Venezuela, Maduro Lives His Bolivar Moment,” which includes the following portion:

“Maduro finds himself reliving the history of Simon Bolivar, the namesake behind PSUV’s Bolivarian revolution that aimed to remake Venezuela for the oppressed at the expense of — more often than not — a faceless oppressor.

In 1989, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author, wrote The General in his Labyrinth, a novel about the fictionalized pathetic last seven months of the life of Simón Bolívar, the liberator of the northern half of South America and the man for him PSUV founder Hugo Chavez based his revolution.

Like the Marquez novel’s version of Bolívar, Maduro is now facing a complex set of domestic and external challenges which may lead him into a similarly pathetic demise…”

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