Salvador was Oliver Stone's first overtly political film, an initial cinematic stab bythe now-renowned leftist auteur to shake up the complacency of the American public duringthe Reagan years. Although the film is primarily a character study of real-life photojournalistRichard Boyle, it is impossible to ignore the film's political concerns, especially in light ofStone's later films such as Born on the Fourth of July (1989), JFK(1991), and Nixon (1995), all of which are, like Salvador, intenselypatriotic and deeply critical of the United States at the same time. In all of these films, Stonedisplays a deep love for what America stands for, but an angry rejection of the manner inwhich the government often betrays it.
When Salvador was released, Stone was not a well-known filmmaker with distinctpolitical views. His screenplays for Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978) andBrian De Palma's Scarface (1983) were viewed as well-written, but essentiallyshallow pulp, and his only feature-length directorial outings were two horror films, thealmost unseen Canadian production Seizure (1974) and the awful TheHand (1981). Thus, Salvador was a complete break from the trajectory ofStone's career, as it introduced a political dynamic into his pulp mentality. By outwardlycondemning U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador, which allowed for military aid to a viciousright-wing military junta because they were fighting Marxist rebels that the Reaganadministration saw as mere puppets of the Soviet Union, Stone took a decisive step forwardwhere many others had feared to tread.
Politics aside, the heart of Salvador is redemption, as the title not only refers to ElSalvador, the civil-war-torn Latin American country in which most of the story takes place,but in Spanish it means "savior." The savior in the film is Richard Boyle, but he does notstart out as such. In fact, the narrative of Salvador is based largely around Boyle'spolitical and spiritual awakening when, after more than 40 years of living only for himself,he finally learns how to sacrifice. This revelation comes to him in what can only be describedas hell on earth during the years 1980-81, when El Salvador was ripped apart by warringfaction on the right and left.
When the film opens, Boyle (played in an Oscar-nominated turn by James Woods) is aburn-out, his professional glory days long behind him, buried in booze, pot, and hardliving. He lives day-to-day in a tenement apartment with his Italian wife and newborn child,with no money to pay the rent and no job prospects on the horizon. When his wife takes thechild and leaves him, Boyle takes one last gamble and heads south of the border, hoping hecan exploit the civil war in El Salvador to his own ends by selling some juicy combat shotsto the Associated Press.
Along for the ride is his friend and fellow sleazeball, a disc jockey named Dr. Rock (JamesBelushi). Boyle and Dr. Rock are fueled by dreams of an El Salvador filled with cheapliquor, tons of pot, and $7 prostitutes, all of which are plentiful. Also plentiful is violenceand bloodshed--military death squads executing anyone without the proper paperwork,corrupt police, parentless children, and utter confusion over who has the country's bestinterests in mind and who wants to exploit the people for their own ends.
Once in El Salvador, Boyle hooks up with a few old contacts, including a military leadernamed Colonel Figueroa (Jorge Luke) and another American photojournalist, John Cassady(John Savage), based on real-life Newsweek photographer John Hoagland, whowas killed in El Salvador. Boyle is also reunited with Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), a peasantwoman with whom he had previously had a relationship. Maria is portrayed as an innocent,one of the few truly decent people in the film, and it is her destiny to act as the catalyst thatjumpstarts Boyle's conscience. It's not a particularly subtle plot development, relying as itdoes on romantic notions of purity and forgiveness, but a film this relentlessly grim anddepressing needs a shot of idealism to keep it from sinking completely.
Stone made Salvador completely outside of the studio system, raising money onhis own and from the British film company Hemdale. It was shot cheaply and efficiently inMexico over 50 days, but the final result seems like it cost much more. Stone orchestratesseveral major action sequences depicting the civil war raging throughout the city of SantaAna, with guerilla fighters charging on horseback, tanks crashing through alleyways, and afighter plane tearing up the streets with machine-gun fire. It has a kind of terrible grandeur toit, and cinematographer Richard Robertson gets us deep in the action with a skillful use ofhand-held cameras that give the film a jittery, explosive quality.
Although Stone does tend to privilege romantic notions of redemption in Salvador,he by no means set himself an easy task by making his central character such a complex,repulsive human being. As portrayed by Woods, Boyle is a truly narcissistic jerk, a manwhose own interests are so clouded that he couldn't even begin to consider the welfare ofothers. Stone positions him as a sort of Hunter S. Thompson character whose gonzojournalism is more about the sex and drugs that it is about getting to the "truth."
Yet, it is precisely because Stone takes this risk that Boyle's eventual conversion is somoving. Stone doesn't rush it, and it's hard to pin-point the exact moment when his politicalsensibilities are awakened to what's around him. There is a humorous sequence in which hegoes to confession for the first time in 33 years so Maria will marry him, and even then hetries to bargain with the priest by working in caveats about drinking and smoking pot fromtime to time. It's wonderfully played by Woods, and Stone lets him control the scene byfilming the whole thing in a medium close-up, so we can savor each of Woods' weasely,nervous facial expressions.
But, while Boyle is certainly central to the narrative, the film is as much about El Salvador asit is about him. The film documents several important historical moments during the civilwar, including the ruthless actions of the death squads, the assassination of ArchbishopRomero (Jose Carlos Ruiz), and the rape and murder of four American churchwomen, astory that made headlines around the world.
However, Salvador is most compelling in the vigor with which it takes its stanceon American involvement in Central America, which Stone immediately recognized as beingsimilar to the political and moral morass of Vietnam (soldiers sent as "advisors," policies ofsupporting anyone, no matter how ruthless, as long as he wasn't communist, etc.). This wasa risky stance to take in the conservative-minded mid-1980s, but Stone makes his caseclearly, although somewhat awkwardly as he often has to force his own political views intoBoyle's mouth, which results in long, self-conscious speeches that spell out the film'stheme. Yet, even if it isn't always the smoothest or most cohesive of Stone's films, it iscertainly one of his most passionate and fiery.
©2001 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (3)
James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.
© 1998 - 2023 Qnetwork.com - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.