Salvador (1986) Directed by Oliver Stone
Is the notion of subtlety something we gain with age? In our actions and in our observations even? I'm only thinking about this as my own notions of subtlety are often reflected in movies I saw when I was a young man and then in viewing the same films many years later. This can be my only reason for wanting to watch Oliver Stone's Salvador after all these years. I remember this film as being powerful and making a strong argument against American policy regarding El Salvador in the early 80's. Of course, we have also known Stone to be a director to use a hammer to crack a nut when a less aggressive stance may make the point more powerfully.
So after all these years, does Salvador stand up? Yes and no. The first half an hour of this film is juvenile, sexist, prurient and really not engaging. It's like a boys' own adventure shot through the viewfinder of Gonzo journalist stylization. James Woods is excellent as always in the role of seedy scumbag photo journalist Richard Boyle. After watching the extras to this film, it's clear that Woods hated the real life Boyle, his onscreen version really isn't so flattering.You gather that this was a difficult film to make for all involved. That is reflected on screen, this is a mess of a movie. Yet, once the politics start being discussed in preference to Boyle's own crude behavior, the picture regains some focus.
This picture follows the same route to other "political" films of the late 70's and early 80's such as The Killing Fields or to a lesser extent The Deer Hunter. What this means is reality is sacrificed in favor of plot devices. Of course, in Stone's case, everything is over the top. Stone obviously idolizes Boyle, so we forgive his faults as a human being in favor of the message of this film. This film is finally a damning indictment of American involvement with the military junta in El Salvador, something the Reagan administration was not so discreetly supporting with glee. I'm grateful Stone still makes political pictures, someone has to. He's still bombastic and still goes in with the hammer. He's never grown up. Being a juvenile in old age can sometimes be a good thing.
I have a prejudice against war journalists. Like hyenas they feast on other people's suffering and get their kicks from danger they were actually not submitted to until they took that last flight or some other vehicle to get there.
Salvador feeds my prejudice. From now on I can just refer to the film because it truly appears to be the bible for irresponsible war journalism. Unfortunately, it is also a weak cinematic experience with a pervasive ignorance about it.
Yes, I know, we need to know what goes on in conflict. But like Richard Boyle, the photo journalist, do we have to grown numb and unfeeling in front of the endless (news about) killing?
Forgetting about Salvador and the defensive idea that we have to lose our ability for empathy,
right now in war journalism there is Ghait Abdul-Ahad. He has photographed and written mostly for The Guardian in the recent years. He became a journalist because his hometown Baghdad was attacked and he needed to document what was happening. Go here to watch his reports and read his writing on Iraq when it was five years from the invasion.
If someone makes a movie about Ghait Abdul-Ahad one day, I hope it's not an Oliver Stone production.