Oliver Stone: Salvador (1986) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Oliver Stone: Salvador (1986)

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Drug-addled photojournalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) self-destructs another relationship and heads down to El Salvador looking for work.  Tagging along is his unstable and questionably credentialed friend Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi).  They arrive just in time to witness the explosion of a struggle between a frazzled population and its right-wing government backed by the United States military.Schemin' WoodsAndrewCommentaryBannerOliver Stone didn’t waste any time jumping from genre fare straight to a throat punch in his first film of 1986, Salvador.  I did question the effectiveness of this during the first ten minutes or so as it was a bit too in your face with the style.  The rapid cuts to darkness over the newsreel at the beginning coinciding with the machine-gun fire on the soundtrack were fine if a bit too direct for my taste, but then it went straight into an overacted apartment squabble with Woods dueling with his scantily clad mate.  I feared the worst for the rest of the film when she screamed “I  cannot live-a like this no more!”

Then Stone starting letting little details of Richard’s squalid existence kick in and the film started to hum with life.  I loved that he had to share a quarter on a string with other residents of the apartment to use his phone.  His friendship with Doctor Rock is also a high point, and reminded me of what would have come of Hunter S. Thompson and his companion if they had lesser fortitude.  Then there are the atrocities we witness which Stone, wisely, uses Richard to witness instead of playing them up for effect.

Watching Stone I was surprised at how composed his shots were as a perfect reflection of Richard’s verve dealing with everything.  Stone’s camera glides so effortlessly over the chaos because Richard is finally back in his element.  The earlier scenes of overblown comedy made a little more sense at that point because he’s a man more in control of himself the less he is of his surroundings.  This leads to a brilliant series of cons at the end of the second act where he switches from a clueless tourist, reasonable businessman, cutthroat negotiator, and opportunistic journalist, seemingly between breaths.

For about an hour the film works perfectly, but once the insurrection has started the pacing drags a bit.  There are still moments a bit too overblown during this time, especially Major Max’s (Tony Plana) speech and presentation worthy of a James Bond villain but not a violent class conflict like in Salvador.  I’m also still trying to piece together just how I feel about the way Stone presented the rape and murder of the four Holy Sisters trying to help the populace.  He doesn’t play it for eroticism (as, and I can’t believe I’ve seen it, some films do) and portrays the criminals as grotesquely as their crime deserves.  Still, there are too many shots of the undressed women in a scene whose meaning is all too clear.

He's entered an explicitly political zone, and for now it seems to be working fine.  How fare you after this?If gonzo journalism lapsed into total failureKyle Commentary BannerI'm pretty well going to echo your sentiments here. James Woods is the best thing about this movie, and as weird as it may seem, I wish that the way we we're allowed to observe things from his hazy, self-involved viewpoint was a bit more consist through last half that you mentioned. There's something incredibly effective in the early scenes about the fact that we're shown the horrors of country's situation second-hand, as a background to Boyle's pathetic, weaselly attempts to solicit help from others. This comes off as a more honest attempt to portray this kind of political turmoil and the human pain involved than many movies that presume an air of importance even while viewing the situation completely from the outside—it's critical of American attitudes toward foreign affairs, and the way it implicates the news system in that so plainly is refreshing, if too in-your-face at times.

That brings me to the second thing I really like about Salvador—the way it presents the journalism business as just that: a business. Boyle's concern is getting another job, making money off a story, etc., and while we do sense a hint of a desire to actually tell a/the story of the situation in El Salvador to the rest of the world (ie – the people in the U.S. who will read his story in the paper or a magazine), it's mostly so he can reestablish his own worth.

One of the best scenes features Boyle and his journalist friend walking through a mass grave taking pictures and talking about how they want to get that one artistic shot that will “capture the reason for these people's suffering.” They talk about another photographer's work and it's lasting impact, and there seems to be some genuine admiration for at least the possibility of a greater value in what they're doing. In the next scene, Boyle leaves the photos he took with a humanitarian group “hoping it will help” in their efforts to identify the dead, an act which is strictly motivated by his need to get a favor from one of the workers there. It's in smaller, less theatrical moments like this where the movie has some teeth to it.It starts slowly

So, where's the controversy?

Tiny Andrew Commentary1986, more than any other year, belonged to Oliver Stone.  I know we haven't watched Platoon yet, but it's hard to ignore the shadow it cast on all the award ceremonies this year.  Salvador, which I believe the better film but am happy to eat humble pie next week if proven wrong, got shoved aside.  That said, something about Salvador went unnoticed.  This was '86, Reagan was entering the second year of his next term, and the idea that right-wing military forces could do any wrong was still a burgeoning thought in coke-addled minds.  I wouldn't mind being cynical here if you can show where I'm off buddy.


Tiny Kyle CommentaryThis one still doesn't seem especially controversial to me. The things going on in the story are of a controversial and explosive nature, but portraying such events—especially in the sometimes sensationalist or melodramatic manner you noted—isn't really the stuff of controversy. It's more the stuff of every movie that tackles events like this ever.

If anything may teeter on controversial, it would probably be the way he portrays journalism as a business above all, which leads into the next question.Can't save everybody

How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryHe didn't, but as I mentioned the timing has more to do with it than anything else.  As a society we have always been looking toward the past than the future.  In Salvador the Southern American conflicts are more recent than the humiliation of Vietnam and the spineless proclamation that we won the Cold War a year later.  In '87 the wall may have fallen, but the squalor remained.  Salvador could not have hit the zeitgeist, but now deserves a second look.


Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe somewhat disaffected attitude of Michael Caine's Horrible Male Character in The Hand has become an unashamedly disconnected and desensitized (to a point at first) James Woods here. I think there may be more that's tapping into an eventual disillusionment with the U.S. of the mid-80s here than would have seemed present at the time. Not only is it critical of the American-backed right-wing regime, but it puts the viewer in the position of a central character who goes there very directly to exploit the social and political situation.

This is the second movie in a row where Stone has been intent on forcing the viewer to step into the shoes of a self-obsessed white male who does what he can to bend the things around him to his own will—or in this case, professional benefit. I know we see a hint at some redemption here that isn't present in The Hand, but all of that seems to hit something about the 80s nail pretty well on the head to me.Seems like a good time to stop

That may be interesting, but is it any good?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryAbsolutely.  The Hand was interesting genre-fare well done but Salvador would be worth recommending for James Woods' performance alone.  He hits the drug nature of the '80s spot-on while maintaining some of the free anarchic spirit of the previous two decades.  Stone proclaims a similar progression with his camera work by reigning in the free-roaming lens just enough to tame the over-stylized productions of the era.  It's timely and it approaches excellence so close I would love to hear the arguments above and below the line.


Tiny Kyle CommentaryI liked this movie well enough to say that I liked it. James Woods can do no wrong, as you said, and Stone captures the increasingly frantic sense of revolutionary chaos in a way that I can't think of too many other movies doing. The best thing here is willingness to let the story unfold in a way that seems as sloppy as the characters, even if that sloppiness is an illusion built into the screenplay. We never feel like we're witnessing some greater truth delivered to us on a platter by The Filmmaker (and we'll talk about that with Platoon, oh we will). That said, I didn't feel like it had built to something greater than the sum of its parts by the end. That was fine, because many of the parts were very good.

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Next week: Platoon!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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