UK Release Date: 17th September 2018
Runtime: 122 minutes
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle
Starring: James Woods, Jim Belushi, John Savage, Elpidia Carrillo, Cindy Gibb
Synopsis: A photojournalist travels to El Salvador in order to document the war between left-wing rebels and the US-supported military junta.
There are few filmmakers for whom their art is as indelibly connected to their politics as it is for Oliver Stone. His ideology is intrinsically linked with his movies, whether through his Vietnam War stories or his trilogy of films about the American presidency. The same is true of 1986 release Salvador, in which Stone turns his eye on the Salvadoran Civil War, pitting a coalition of left-wing rebel groups against the right-wing military junta in power, with the latter group supported by the US government. Thirty years after its original release, the movie is now on UK Blu-ray in a new transfer that highlights every ounce of blood, grit and grime.
All of that grime is seen through the eyes of freelance photojournalist Boyle (James Woods). He’s a boozy, drug-addicted and unfaithful man who’s down on his luck, being kicked out of his apartment and lacking in leads for a story. Desperate for a scoop, he convinces DJ friend Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi) to fund a trip to El Salvador, where the two sides of the political spectrum are on the brink of all-out war. In the country, he reconnects with old flame Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) and fellow journalist Cassady (John Savage), but events soon spiral out of control.
And it’s only once those events begin to spiral that Salvador finds its groove. After an urgent, stylish montage of war sequences accompanied by a propulsive and energetic score, Stone takes a disappointing left turn and opens the movie as a character study of Boyle, which suffers because his slacker style of “boozing and whoring” his way from A to B is entirely uninteresting and completely devoid of any ability to induce audience empathy. His relationship with Maria is incredibly under-written, which is at odds with how ultimately pivotal it is to the way Boyle acts and the decisions he makes.
Fortunately, the political firebrand portion of Stone’s filmmaking eventually fizzes to the surface. He finds plenty of room to take incisive swipes at the US military, who seem more motivated by the desire to avoid “another Vietnam” and score points over the “commies” than they are by the notion of resolving the conflict. When one Salvadoran character says she feels as if it’s “like 1932 again” and that there’s a “bad feeling in the air”, it’s a clear sign as to where Stone’s sympathies lie. That’s not to say, though, that the left-wing combatants go uncriticised, with their hypocrisy illustrated in a shocking scene in which Woods accuses them of becoming just like the government they’re fighting.
Salvador is exceptionally strong when it works on this visceral level. Shots of bodies strewn uncaringly in a muddy mass grave are genuinely potent and the third act plunges Woods directly into the gruesome, violent heart of the conflict. Stone’s handheld camera takes the audience into it too and we feel the danger and the intensity of every near-miss and bullet wound. It’s in these wild, chaotic scenes that the performances from Woods – and especially the far more sympathetic Savage – really come into their own, building to a finale that packs an undeniable punch.
There’s a choice of audio mixes on this one, as well as a feature-length Stone commentary and a couple of extensive archive interviews with him as well. You also get an hour-long making of doc and some deleted/extended scenes.
Pop or Poop?
Oliver Stone’s Salvador struggles early on and could’ve benefited from spending a little less time in the rather loathsome company of its protagonist. However, once the bullets start flying and the political consequences begin to unfold, Salvador finds its grotesque groove and culminates as an incisive and powerful depiction of hypocrisy on both sides of the political spectrum.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Salvador is available on Blu-ray in the UK from Monday, courtesy of Eureka Video.