Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle.
Starring: James Woods (Richard Boyle), James Belushi (Doctor Rock), Michael Murphy (Ambassador Thomas Kelly), John Savage (John Cassady), Elpidia Carrillo (María), Tony Plana (Major Maximiliano 'Max' Casanova), Colby Chester (Jack Morgan - State Department Analyst), Cynthia Gibb (Cathy Moore), Will MacMillan (Colonel Bentley Hyde Sr.), Valerie Wildman (Pauline Axelrod), José Carlos Ruiz (Archbishop Romero), Jorge Luke (Colonel Julio Figueroa).
Oliver Stone has admitted to thinking that Salvador may have been his last chance to direct. He had a successful screenwriting career by the mid-1980s, but his two previous directing efforts (Seizure and The Hand) had did nothing for his career. Salvador was his chance to finally make the type of film he wanted to make – even if he had little money to do so – and Stone wasn’t going to screw it up. Salvador has all the markings of a filmmaker trying to do too much for one movie to realistically do. The film is somewhat scattershot, verging between comedy and heart wrenching drama to thriller to political sermon, and back again. Stone makes that work for the movie though – this is the type of film where everything can turn on a dime, so that tone is appropriate. The biggest asset Salvador has though is a brilliant, Oscar nominated performance by James Woods – perhaps the best the actor has ever given. The film makes full use of Woods’ slimy charm – but also finds a real person underneath that. The film has its flaws to be sure – none of them involve Woods.
In the film, Woods stars as Richard Boyle – a reporter who was on the ground throughout the Vietnam War, who has had trouble keeping a job since the war ended. Back in the States, he has a wife and a kid – but they leave him fairly early in the movie. He gets arrested, and calls on his friend Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi) to get him out of jail. He then convinces Rock to come with him to El Salvador, where Boyle is convinced he could make some money as a journalist covering the Civil War in that country that is just starting to heat up. The film takes place in 1980 – in literally the last days of the Carter administration before Reagan becomes President – and a new Ambassador comes to the country. There is a lot of arguing about whether the rebels are communists or not – and whether the Americans should be supporting what is essentially a military dictatorship or not. Boyle – and by extension Stone – are really arguing that this is nothing more than a Civil War, and America is backing murderers, and should stay out of it. Boyle doesn’t find too many people who agree with him during the course of the movie.
I’ve seen Salvador at least three times before this latest viewing, and to be honest, I always forget just how much political talk is in the movie. That’s because the movie is least effective when it sets Woods out to debate different government officials – military men, politicians, etc. – and have him debate the merits of whether or not they should be there. Stone simultaneously explains too much and not enough about the situation in El Salvador – too much in that there are political conversations that grind the movie to a halt at several points, lacking any sort of dramatic flow, and yet not enough, as the specifics of the conflict remain murky – as if Stone assumes the audience will already know some of them (which may well have been the case back in 1986).
But if the movie fails as a political sermon – which most movies that attempt to be that do – it works on a number of different levels beyond that. As Roger Ebert pointed out, and Stone has confirmed, at times Boyle and Rock’s journey through El Salvador brings to mind Hunter S. Thompson, and his gonzo journalism style – where he’d show up in place, do as many drugs and drink as much alcohol as possible, and simply have a good time, writing whatever he could. The opening scenes of the movie certainly bring that to mind – and there drunken moments throughout that recall Thompson as well.
The movie is also effective as puncturing that drug and alcohol produced bubble that Boyle created for himself, as the movie gets very violent, and shows disturbing scene after disturbing scene of people being killed for no reason – and where even the most innocent of interactions threatens to boil over into violence, chaos and bloodshed. If Boyle starts the movie as a seemingly cynical, uncaring asshole – he doesn’t come out of the movie the same way.
Woods navigates the different things the movie asks him to do with ease. It was apparently not an easy shoot – and Woods was unhappy throughout – but he never let that affect his performance. The early scenes of Boyle – where he’s a cynical prick – give us the Woods we all know and love – but as the film progresses, it requires him to go deeper than he usually has a chance to do. The infamous confession scene is perhaps the best acting of Woods career – and there are moments in the back end, where he has found his humanity and desperation, that rival it. No matter the other flaws in the film, Woods helps to cover them up.
Salvador does have its share of flaws. Once again, I have to say that a Stone film has a “woman problem” – nowhere more so than in its depiction of a female reporter that feels unnecessarily harsh, and borders on misogyny at times. The rest of the female characters don’t do much to help – not even Woods’ girlfriend in the film, played by Elpidia Carrillo, who remains so passive in the film, you keep forgetting about her. There is another, seemingly better, journalist in the film – played by John Savage – but he isn’t given much to do, and his big moment rings false.
But for the most part Salvador works. Yes, Woods has a lot to do with that. But it’s also Stone’s direction – which has an urgency about it. At times, Stone seems to want to be making a Costa-Gravas-style political thriller/docudrama, complete with handheld camera work. Stone just does that better than most. The film can be funny, and then turn on an instant – and captures both of things amazingly well. This is a huge leap forward in his directing career from The Hand – and his next film (made the same year), would be another one.
Salvador has too many problems for it to be a truly great film, but it’s better than I remembered it being at the same time. It’s too much of a sermon, and has other problems to be sure, but at its best, Salvador is pretty damn terrific.