Once upon a time, Oliver Stone was one of the most gifted and beloved directors in America. With a slew of critically beloved films under his belt (including Platoon, Wall Street, and Born on the Fourth of July), he was one of the rare directors who could deliver a film loved both by audiences and by critics. Then, the 90s happened, and with a string of less critically beloved films (The Doors, Nixon, eventually in the 2000s the trainwreck known as Alexander), his stock in the cinematic world disappeared, and it’s never really recovered (though I personally want to see Savages when it comes out). Still, even though he’s not the culturally significant figure he used to be, there was a time when Oliver Stone made great films. I just finished his breakthrough directorial feature Salvador today (previously, he had written the screenplays for Scarface and Midnight Express), and while the film was utterly lacking in subtlety, it was a wonderfully acted and ultimately important film about the horrors committed by the right wing military dictatorship of El Salvador which was financially and militarily supported by the U.S. government. Centered on a fantastic James Woods (in an Oscar nominated role), Salvador hit with the same kind of emotional strength as the similarly themed The Killing Fields and is a must see for anyone interested in the human rights violations in Central America and how the U.S. government bears a healthy responsibility for what happened.
Based on the real life story of Richard Boyle (James Woods), Salvador gives audiences an “in the fox holes” view of the El Salvador civil war and the lives of the photojournalists covering the tragedy. Richard Boyle had covered nearly all of the military conflicts of the 15 years or so preceding the film’s beginning (in 1980) including Vietnam and Cambodia (where he was the last journalist out of the country). However, he’s a drunk, womanizer, and drug abuser with an ego the size of his vices and no one wants to hire him anymore. When the film begins, he’s been jobless for so long that he’s evicted from his apartment and his wife runs away with their infant child. Desperate for cash (and with nothing else to do), Richard gets a loan from his last remaining friend, Dr. Rock (James Belushi), and heads to El Salvador in the hopes that he can get some good pictures of the combat and make some easy cash. When he’s accosted by soldiers of the military junta the moment he arrives, it’s immediately apparent that El Salvador isn’t going to be just another mission. Richard may be a bit of a schmuck but he’s not an entirely heartless guy, and as he pays witness to the increasingly horrific acts committed by the right-wing government against any that oppose them (all in the name of “stopping” communism), Boyle becomes committed to getting the truth of these atrocities out to the world even if his invasive brand of photojournalism threatens to get him and everyone he cares about in El Salvador killed.
As I mentioned earlier, James Woods received an Oscar nomination for this film, and while I’ve only seen one other film that was nominated in that category (The Color of Money), I certainly think he was better in this than Paul Newman was in The Color of Money (Paul Newman won that year). Unlike the very similar The Killing Fields (ironically enough, Richard Boyle specifically mentions that film’s protagonist, Sydney Schanberg, several times), Richard Boyle does not constitute a particularly sympathetic protagonist. When he isn’t being a complete prick to everyone around him and asking for a never-ending stream of money to pay for his booze and whores, he manages to come off like an arrogant prick even when he’s trying to do the right thing. James Woods manages to capture all of the complexities of Boyle’s character as well as nailing the scenes where Boyle has to react to the horrors around him, whether it’s going to a mountain which is where the government death squads dump their victims or trying to survive a frenzied battle between government and rebel forces. John Savage also gave a great, understated performance as a fellow photog trying to survive in the hellish conditions and with a nearly suicidal tendency to try and get the perfect shot. James Belushi (not a dramatic actor) was slightly miscast as Dr. Rock and the performance of Predator‘s Elpidia Carrillo as Boyle’s Salvadorean girlfriend was also underdone.
Oliver Stone wrote the script for this film (he received not one but two Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominations in 1986. The other film was Platoon but he lost to Woody Allen for both for Hannah and Her Sisters), and while his direction is practically flawless (the abject horror of the atrocities committed by the military as well as the expertly choreographed war scenes), it’s his scriptwriting which provides the film both its best moments and its most overbearing, pompous moments. I applaud the decision to make Richard Boyle (a real person so I’m guessing he’s okay with this truthful portrayal of his behavior) such an unsympathetic lead and it does a lot to temper some of the film’s more self-righteous moments. The film was also obviously, incredibly well-researched and like The Killing Fields, there’s a sense of truth and realism to virtually every scene of the film. However, the film falters when the script calls for Boyle to make grand speeches to beat the audience over the head with messages and themes that the more visual aspects of the film have already clearly established. It’s becoming a pet peeve of mine for movies lately when directors try to insult the audience’s intelligence by doing more “telling” than “showing.” It gives the film a sense of smug self-satisfaction, and Oliver Stone is too insightful and too inherently visual of a director to fall down that traphole. It’s like so many directors are afraid that images and subtle commentary will go over their audience’s head and they feel the need to drop moral anvils on their viewers. It’s incredibly irritating.
Despite the film’s occasional preachiness, it’s still a searing look at a page in Central American history that even our own government would prefer go away. The Reagan administration especially (though Carter was almost equally guilty) was complicit in the murder of thousands of peasant farmers and “subversives” in the name of stopping Communism. The millions of people who died in Vietnam (U.S. soldiers, civilians, the Vietcong, others) in the name of the “domino effect” apparently were for naught because the American government didn’t learn its lesson to not get involved in the same kind of strife in Central America. Maybe I shouldn’t complain about the number of big expository speeches that Richard Boyle made in this film because some anvils need dropped. However, there has to be more subtle, less obvious ways to get your point across. Yet, the movie was so haunting and brutal (and true) that I can forgive its flaws. If you have any interest in the history of America making things worse in other countries, Salvador has plenty to teach you.
Final Score: A-