Oliver Stone’s passionate denunciation of American policy, highly politicised but electrically made
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: James Woods (Richard Boyle), Jim Belushi (Doctor Rock), Michael Murphy (Ambassador Thomas Kelly), John Savage (John Cassady), Elpida Carrillo (Maria), Cindy Gibb (Cathy Moore), Tony Plana (Major Maximiliano Casanova), José Carlos Ruiz (Archbishop Oscar Romero)
To many countries the Cold War was very hot. The USA and USSR may not have crossed swords personally, but they were happy to funnel money and arms to governments and resistance groups in other countries to fight for them. The Salvadoran Civil War became another proxy battleground for East vs West – or rather Capitalism vs Communism. The US backed the military dictatorship, the USSR the left-wing revolutionaries. Caught in the middle? The people of El Salvador and their shattered human rights.
It’s not surprising this attracted the attention of Oliver Stone. Released in the same year as Platoon, Salvador is the second half of a one-two punch against the failures of American intervention. It was considerably less palatable to the masses though: Salvador is a furious, spittle-mouthed denunciation of American policy. Unlike Platoon where the victim is basically the innocence of a whole generation of Americans (an American tragedy), here you can’t fail to notice America is one of the bad guys. To Stone, El Salvador (as Richard Boyle points out in the film) was America’s chance to fight Vietnam again, only this time “right”: win it while sacrificing the lives of another country instead. It’s a considerably less easy to digest message.
Salvador is based on a fictionalised version of gonzo-journalist Richard Boyle (played with mesmeric intensity by an Oscar-nominated James Woods) who escapes from the mess of his life in San Francisco to cover the war first hand in El Salvador. There he finds himself growing increasingly sympathetic to the left-wing rebels, as the US-backed government forces commit atrocity after atrocity: mountains of corpses, assassinations and out-of-control death squads. And no-one in the embassy wants to admit to it, not when they are more concerned about keeping El Salvador from going Red. To stop that, any price is worth paying.
It makes for a passionate, angry but not subtle film. But then is Oliver Stone known for anything else? It hectors, it bellows, it hammers its points home. Stone’s writing is often a touch simplistic. There are traces of the unpleasant racism of Stone’s scripted Midnight Express in the scruffy, lecherous vileness of many of the government troops while death squad leader Major Max (Tony Plana) struts around like a mix of Tony Montana and Henry II, all but saying “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” as he plots the murder of leading protestor Archbishop Oscar Romero.
It’s a film that lands punches that would have been better pulled. I could have done without the all-too-detailed recreation of the rape and murder of four American missionaries by a government death squad. Changing the names, doesn’t change the fact that these are fundamentally real people whose final moments are staged with a little too much queasy detail (or close-ups of their mistreated, bullet ridden bodies). But then, Stone is equally unafraid – and perhaps rightly so – to show us mountains of dead Salvadoran bodies, including children, so maybe it’s hypocritical of me to argue restraint for American victims.
Stone shoots the film with a real urgency and immediacy. Boyle frequently makes his way to the heat of the action and the camera follows him right in there. It ducks and sways among panicked mobs of people. It sees charges of horse-backed revolutionaries head towards it. It follows Boyle through devastated streets and scenes of despicable human carnage. It doesn’t flinch from executions and murders and when Boyle is thrown to the ground by explosions and gunfire, it goes down with him. Stone allows bombastic excess into the film, twinned with a score that adds a little too much classical self-importance, but at least his reasoning behind making this an overwhelming film makes sense. The whole ghastly civil war is overwhelming.
And so is America’s part in it. Aside from the ambassador – a Carter-ish hangover, played with ineffectual decency by Michael Murphy – the figures we see from government are heartless, cold warriors, interested only in the ends and caring nothing for the means. They pour money into death squads, provide air support and tanks for rebels to be strafed on the ground and are totally indifferent to morality. The media largely backs them all the way, parroting the government line and painting the revolutionaries as terrorists. They even suggest those dead missionaries were either foolish or mixed up with the rebels – either way fundamentally responsible for their deaths.
The government contrasts with the “ordinary” Americans we see. Missionaries down here to do good. And, of course, the cryptic figure of Richard Boyle. Boyle is, in many ways, a deeply unsympathetic character. Woods makes him selfish, sleazy and self-interested, constantly letting people down and taking what he can get from friendships and situations. But the things he sees in El Salvador reawakens his sense of right and wrong. He’s vile but he’s kind of brave. He will call out what he sees as wrong. He will protect others, instinctively covering those he loves when bullets fly.
And, finally, he tries to do something right, smuggling his girlfriend Maria (sweetly played by Elpidia Carrillo) and her young son back to America (needless to say, the authorities do not react well). Part of Salvador’s success is in seeing Woods perfectly craft a character arc that takes a man interested only in himself through to putting himself at risk for innocents. It’s a long road from the gonzo washout who drives down to the country stoned with drinking buddy Dr Rock (Jim Belushi, rather good as grungy stoner, sweeter than he appears, who grows to love the country and its people).
He’s a complex hero though, superbly bought to life by Woods in a performance that’s like a raw wound in a complex film. While Platoon could be seen, for all its loss of innocence, as a film where America was the victim, Salvador casts the country as the villain sharing morally responsibility for the piles of corpses Boyle picks his way through. Stone acknowledges the crimes of the revolutionaries – Boyle furiously denounces them for their shooting of unarmed soldiers pleading for the lives – but his real anger in this passionate, vibrant polemic is America itself. It’s delivered with verve, commitment and drama and helps make Salvador one of his best and most overlooked films.