Sunday 27 February 2011

Movie Review: Salvador (1986)

Through the eyes of photojournalists, Oliver Stone tackles the brutal civil war that destroyed El Salvador and killed 75,000 people in the 1980s. Salvador is a small film that dares to ask the big questions, and a smart enough movie to realize that the answers are most elusive.

Richard Boyle (James Woods) makes it his job to take pictures in the world's most violent hotspots, and his experience covers Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, in 1980 he is living in a squalid San Francisco apartment, unemployed and broke. His wife abandons him, so he packs his car, grabs his friend Dr. Rock (James Belushi), and drives to El Salvador, a country in the midst of an ugly war between a right-wing ruling junta and a left-wing peasant uprising.

But it's the cold war and no conflict is simple: the rebels are portrayed as heavily armed communists backed by Castro and the Soviets; the army is recast as defenders of freedom and gets the support of Reagan's United States while committing widespread atrocities, operating death squads, and ensuring that "disappearances" occur on a wide scale.

Despite the chaos, Boyle is initially more interested in womanizing, drugs and alcohol, and he soon hooks up with former lover Maria (Elipidia Carrillo) and her family. But he is also desperate to make some money, so he joins forces with fellow photojournalist John Cassady (John Savage, portraying a character loosely based on real-life photojournalist John Hoagland), and together they start capturing the horrors of the conflict: a mass open grave for victims of the death squads; a trip to a rebel camp; and the disappearance and murder of innocent civilians. Boyle also chronicles landmark events of the El Salvador war, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the rape and murder of four American women missionaries. For Boyle and Cassady, chronicling the ever more violent conflict and staying alive start to become mutually exclusive.

Civil wars in small countries are particularly nasty affairs, and rarely receive much attention. Using straightforward in-your-face filmmaking, Stone whitewashes nothing. Boyle is a sleazy leach, living off others and believing in very little. The right-wing army rulers are despicable, barbarous and heartless. The Americans pulling the strings of the army are obsessed cold-war warriors who see nothing except a global conflict with communism. The local US ambassador is clueless. The rebels are initially portrayed as peasant freedom fighters who have Boyle's sympathy; but his eyes are opened when they, too, start to cold-heartedly assassinate unarmed soldiers.

The only genuinely sympathetic character is Maria, and she stands for the country, victimized from all sides, and left terrified and abandoned even by those with genuine intentions to help.

James Woods gives a trademark performance with intensity cranked up to eleven. A man driven by pumping adrenaline and capable of talking himself into huge amounts of trouble, Woods makes sure that Boyle is a memorable, hugely flawed but ultimately caring man, perfectly suited to surviving the world's worst trouble spots.

Salvador contains no glamour, no fake emotions, no little victories, and no happy endings: a perfect metaphor for the futility and wastefulness of nasty proxy wars.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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