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A journalist, down on his luck in the US, drives to El Salvador to chronicle the events of the 1980 military dictatorship, including the assasination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He forms an uneasy alliance with both guerillas in the countryside who want him to get pictures out to the US press, and the right-wing military, who want him to bring them photographs of the rebels. Meanwhile he has to find a way of protecting his Salvadorean girlfriend and getting her out of the country. Written by
Tony Bowden <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Compelling Film About the Intersection Between Journalistic Ethics and Politics
Going back and watching Salvador makes me realize how long it's been since Oliver Stone has been on his game. How long has it been since he made a film that actually required the audience to think. It's not that he's suddenly become loud and bombastic, it's that he's suddenly stopped doing anything genuinely provocative. Natural Born Killers, for example, is *not* a provocative film. It's a loud and angry and aggressive film. However, the film produced only attacks on the filmmaker (or rather excessive adulation for Stone) and never really stimulated an intelligent national debate. But Salvador, based on the true experiences of photojournalist Rick Boyle, is Stone at his best. It's complicated and full of the mixture of regret, guilt, nostalgia, and outrage that fill the director's landmarks (JFK or Platoon, for example). After all of the violence and horror, it becomes a film about representations of reality and the different reasons for distorting truth.
Rick Boyle (James Woods) is at the end of his rope. He's unemployed, his wife just left him. And he's just been thrown in jail for a litany of driving violations. After getting bailed out by his tubby friend Doctor Rock (James Belushi in the role he was probably born to play), he hops in his unregistered car that he isn't licensed to drive, and he heads south to El Salvador. His only companions are Doctor Jack, his alcohol, and his drugs on a journey that can't help but be likened to the drive to Vegas in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. When he arrives in El Salvador, he finds the country torn apart with leftist rebels fleeing to the hills and a country braced for a bloody "democratic" election in which a murderous American puppet general will likely be elected. Boyle tries to use his connections to get a press pass and get one last shot to become a success. This is made easier by the Salvadorian woman who loves him and the ace photographer who lends him a hand (John Savage).
But not everybody in El Salvador is supportive of the loose cannon journalist. There's the colonel who thinks he's a communist, the military attache who's using him for information, and the local military forces who resent the way Boyle depicted them in a previous campaign. The audience is supposed to be disgusted by the way that Boyle treats himself and those he loves, but there's one important fact that's repeated over and over: Boyle was the last journalist out of Cambodia. We know that he stayed to help save people. And it's just a matter of time before he becomes even more personally invested in what's happening in Central America. And that's when things go really crazy.
The world of photojournalism depicted in the film is one step from public relations and sometimes not even that. Boyle's major supported among the military leaders is a general about whom Boyle had written a glowing profile. Boyle is also able to curry favor by showing his pictures to American military leaders before trying to publish them. The question that comes up, of course, is why are the pictures being taken at all and how can anybody ever know the truth of any war. Journalists, like everybody else, get caught up in their surroundings. Boyle may be supporting the right side in El Salvador, but he admits to having favored Pol Pot for a brief period years earlier. The difference between canonizing a truly noble leader (like the assassinated Archbishop Romero) and elevating a genocidal lunatic is a small one. Salvador calls into question how American audiences can ever know who to trust in a media covered war. On one hand we have Pauline Axelrod (Valerie Wildman) appearing on air because she's pretty and blond even though she just accepts the official statements as truth. Then there's also Savage's journalist who's willing to do anything to get the perfect shot, to create an image that shows both the conflict and the reasons behind it in a single frame. Idealism and self preservation are competing instincts.
The film is pure Stone. The battle sequences are tense and tightly edited and the dialogue (which Stone cowrote with Rick Boyle) is rippingly good, for the most part. Then again, its misogyny is almost worn as a gold star, female characters are, as always, Madonnas or whores, and a rape scene is fairly exploitative. Also in a conversation between Boyle and a conservative US Colonel, Stone unpacks entirely too much of his personal ideology in a series of monologues. The message of the film, about not wanted to create another Vietnam and liberalism not being the same as Communism is much too literally articulated.
The film basically hinges on Woods's wonderful performance. His typical manic energy perfectly fits his character's earliest incarnation, but as Boyle becomes more troubled by what he sees around him, Woods's performance becomes deeper, richer, and more internalized. The rest of the cast has less to do and thus can't really be blamed for not standing out. Belushi's Doctor Jack has "Fictitious Composite Character" written all over him. Basically we watch as his story arc goes in opposite directions from Woods's at all times.
Salvador is perhaps the only film to ever express nostalgia for Jimmy Carter. I like that. I like that it's challenging, dogmatic, but rarely insults my intelligence by saying things that I already know. This is a very fine 8/10 film.
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