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Salvador
2 reviews

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Movie Details

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Directed By
Oliver Stone

Written By:
Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle

Cast:
James Woods, James Belushi, John Savage, Michael Murphy, Elpidia Carrillo, Cynthia Gibb, Tony Plana, Jorge Luke, Juan Fernandez, Valerie Wildman, Will MacMillan, Colby Chester, Colby Chester, Jose Carlos Ruiz

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Salvador (1986)
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Movie Review by Jarrod
May 17th, 2011

'Salvador' was Oliver Stone's last film before Platoon, Natural Born Killers, and JFK, which catapulted him into the Hollywood elite, and made him both very successful and highly controversial.

Stone, famously, has always been sympathetic to left-wing causes, and critical of American foreign policy, from the Vietnam era, down to the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Understanding his politics is important, because 'Salvador' is occasionally explicitly political, though it also functions as a gritty, compelling war drama, offering one of the best, and most realistic, depictions of the brutal civil war in the small Central American nation of El Salvador, which really began in 1980, and continued through the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who supplied millions of dollars in aid to the military junta that set itself up as the ruler of the country, waging a campaign against Marxist insurgents, peasant guerrilla fighters, fighting not for ideology, but for independence and for their families. Reagan was stirred by this allegedly valiant attempt to eradicate Communism, choosing to ignore the government's excesses.

The death squads. Abductions and executions carried out by the police. Civilians and demonstrators gunned down by the army. The movie provides a valuable history lesson, even though Stone and co-writer Rick Boyle have fictionalized many of these events. The underlying details are accurate, however. Story centers on journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods), who has hit rock bottom, a hopeless alcoholic, abandoned by his wife, and evicted from his apartment.

He has covered wars in Vietnam, Cambodia (where he proudly claims that he was the last man out, putting himself at risk while Sydney Schanberg was safe at home accepting his Pulitzer), and numerous other places, wrote a book that was once a bestseller, and is a skilled photographer, but has been fired by his news agency and has not a worthwhile assignment in almost a decade. He continually begs for money, and follows the developments in El Salvador, which he has visited before. He still has contacts in the region, and convinces his friend, pot-smoking DJ Doctor Rock (James Belushi), to join him in what turns out to be a long drive into El Salvador, since they cannot afford to buy plane tickets.

Boyle is a fast-talking conman, with an impressive ability to think on his feet, and improvise ways to get himself out of sticky situations, and he remains in almost constant danger, especially once he runs afoul of Major Max (Tony Plana), whose bid for the presidency is built upon anti-Communism, nationalism, and preserving the existing social order, emphasizing family values and the church, which is staunchly behind him, except for Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose impassioned sermons against violence and injustice threaten to undermine the credibility of Max's regime, while tacitly empowering and encouraging the rebels.

The assassination of Romero was the event that caused the violence to escalate, and plunge all of El Salvador into brutal, unceasing conflict. Romero was the subject of his own movie (where he was played by Raul Julia), but is given a very good scene here, and he strikes us as a man of conscience and principle, whose faith compels him to deplore the atrocities committed on both sides, while expressing concern for the plight of peasants and children. He is a proponent of liberation theology, which was condemned by the Vatican, and right-wing extremists, as just another form of Marxism.

The first part of the film is primarily comic, and we are intended to laugh at the often foolish antics of Boyle and Rock, either stoned or drunk as they adjust themselves to their new surroundings, with Rock especially out of his element. Boyle attempts to reconnect with previous paramours, including the beautiful young local Maria (Elpidia Carrillo), who still loves him, and stayed hopeful that he would one day return to her.

His personal life is a disaster, and we wonder why, with his rampant infidelity and inherent dishonesty, why Maria even bothers, or remains loyal to him. Boyle searches for work, reaching out to all of his old contacts and friends, including veteran war photographer John Cassady (John Savage), and State Department analyst Jack Morgan (Colby Chester), inching ever closer to US ambassador Thomas Kelley (Michael Murphy), a harried liberal who sees the situation spiraling quicker out of control, and tries to maintain and assert his authority, even as the CIA conducts operations behind his back, never bothering to consult or inform him.

With Cassady, Boyle visits a mass grave, filled with the victims of massacres carried out by Max's troops, and as things become more unstable, his primary concern becomes finding a way to save Maria and her children; without a birth certificate, or legitimate ID papers, she can be arrested and shot. There is some deliciously toxic interplay between Boyle and Pauline Axelrod (Valerie Wildman), a pompous big media reporter who accepts government claims as truth. At the center is an energetic, entertaining, often very funny, but also bitter, emotionally intense and surprisingly poignant performance from James Woods, always appearing to be trapped in a state of nervous paranoia.

Boyle is a deeply flawed protagonist, but is propelled by righteous anger and fiery humanism, outraged at what he sees happening around him, and the indifference of American authorities. Stone uses Boyle to engage in a heated ideological argument (unpacked by Stone as a series of monologues) with a stubborn, hot-headed, cigar-chomping colonel (Will MacMillan), the kind of rah-rah jingoist and deluded nutjob who rants and raves about pinko liberals and Commie sympathizers.

When the films adopts a grimmer, more sobering tone, in its depictions of the savage violence engulfing the nation, it becomes an entirely different experience altogether, captivating, but also difficult to watch at times, especially during scenes of rape and murder, and scenes of clinics filled with maimed and burned children. Belushi portrays an obviously fictional composite character, whose story arc goes in opposite directions from that of Woods's, and by the end, they have been completely reversed. If anything, the film suffers from having too many stories going on at once, even though it never loses sight of its central message (which may be too literally articulated).

I liked John Savage as the dedicated Cassady, willing to do anything for that 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, contradictory instincts. Battle sequences are tense and tightly edited; dialogue is extremely good, colorful and laden with profanity, in other words, pure Stone in every way. Also, I think this may be the only film that expresses heartfelt nostalgia for Jimmy Carter.

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