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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Salvador
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Review by DVD Savant | posted June 5, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Fierce, ferocious and challenging on every level, Salvador remains Oliver Stone's best film to date.  Although not without flaws (mostly of conception; it seems determined to offend the very people who most 'need' its message), its combination of sharp storytelling and first-rank acting keeps you on the edge of your seat.  James Woods, a dynamic actor who is sometimes difficult to warm up to, plays a very complicated, flawed man (this is a retelling of a true story) who you end up rooting for, in spite of the fact that he's a self-acknowledged Weasel of Weasels.


Richard Boyle (James Woods, in an Oscar nominated performance) is a Gonzo journalist who lives an incredibly sordid lifestyle, while scamming his more 'conventional' reporter friends for pickup jobs and even handouts.  Evicted from his rooms and abandoned by his wife, he cons a disc jockey friend Doctor Rock (James Belushi) out of several hundred dollars, and shanghais him to El Salvador, sneaking in the back way through Guatemala, all to nail a civil war story to propel him back into 'the working press.'  In the war zone, he rekindles an old romance with refugee María (Elpidia Carrillo), does 'dawn patrols' into dangerous areas with ace camera journalist John Cassady (John Savage), and wends a crooked path between venal Salvadoran military killers, death squad thugs, moronic network field reporters, complicit American CIA agents and a very harried Ambassador Thomas Kelly (Michael Murphy).  His unending whoring and drunkeness comes to an end with the election of Ronald Reagan, a sea-change which signals even more brutality and oppression from the puppet government.  Activist Archbishop Romero is assassinated and a volunteer nun friend, Cathy Moore (Cindy Gibb) is raped and murdered along with 3 others.  The loudmouthed, fast-talking Richard is personally targeted in a land which has become a killing zone, and even his own 'weasely' skills may not be enough to save his life or that of María and her children.

Before Oliver Stone proclaimed that he alone 'owned rights' to the '60s as subject matter, and before he forever sullied the docudrama format with his JFK, he made this bold and righteous exposé of the Big Reagan Lie in El Salvador.  Taken from the notes of a boozing, whoring adventurer-reporter who courted death continuously while bringing out accurate stories of merciless carnage and high-level duplicity, this is exactly the kind of picture that earns its actors awards yet doesn't get shown much.  It's perhaps the kindest compliment to America, that it tolerates a film like Salvador, which openly labels its leaders murderers and war criminals.  It sure wouldn't be allowed anywhere else.

James Woods' Richard Boyle is a fireball of manic energy and vulgar disdain for authority, unwilling to be faithful even to people he loves but possessed of a keen sense of outrage at injustice.  This hellish war can boast a surplus of injustice, with Hitler-like politicos grabbing power over the bodies of thousands of peasants, and appalling American agents brokering arms for the killing of children, using cynical cold-war rhetoric to bully anyone in their way.  The film has no shortage of death and mutilation, sweat-inducing tension and suicidal bravado; if the truth of Boyle's experiences are only a fifth of what we see here, this is an amazing lifestyle, and one I think few of us would dare follow.

As propaganda, Salvador is hopeless, for mainstream audiences would never make it through the shock of seeing nuns raped and shot, or the seamy personal adventures of the low-life 'hero,' to begin to deal with the political content.  This is a very honest move on the part of director Stone, who soft-pedals nothing (well, almost, see the section on the extras) and makes no effort to make this horror story more palatable.  No philosophy here of 'telling the story the public is ready to see', as with Traffic; Stone's film didn't reach as big a public, but it sure as heck separates the reasonable viewers from those determined to accept the Reagan view of reality.  Remember, in 1986 America was too busy watching Rambo to pay attention to anything this disturbing.

Stone does lose control of the situation in one scene, which has Woods reading the riot act to a slimy pair of CIA operatives, thus venting his rage while expressing the 'director's point of view', very, very bluntly.  It's a dumb scene, and I was surprised to see it, and it's too bad it was left in, as Stone's control elsewhere never flinches.

The picture makes you ashamed to pay taxes, while feeling that you yourself barely escaped alive.  Its downbeat ending is relieved by a pair of hopeful addenda, and the knowledge that wild-card Boyle, the ultimate cynic, is a converted man.  Salvador is Casablanca for Central America.

MGM's Special Edition DVD of Salvador is a winner.  The 16:9 enhanced picture for this beautifully-shot-under-insane-conditions movie makes it the equal of much more expensive Hollywood fare, and the sound is also first-rate.  This has to be Hemdale's finest hour.  The package comes with a longish documentary with an embarassing title, 'Into the Valley of Death', that is unabashedly frank on the subject of American Adventurism in Nicaragua and El Salvador; it's a collection of production anecdotes mixed with documentary facts, at one point utilizing news footage of Ronald Reagan himself fumbling through domino-theory blather that he himself seems to acknowledge is only a line of selfserving rubbish.

Where the added value items get to be a bit much is in the gallery of deleted scenes, which make graphically literal the (doubtless truthful) whoring of the leads.  In Hearts and Minds, the pornographic scenes of soldiers with Saigon whores made their point (look America, your soldier-boys are not Boy Scouts); here, it just seems that Stone and co. are having themselves one high time using Latins as whores literally, while deploring our government's doing the same thing on a political level.  It's the same equation that made Savant reject Stone's self-righteousness in the later Born on the Fourth of July, where we're supposed to feel sorry for the poor alienated veterans who go South of the Border to demean 'lesser humans' - and call it therapy.

The package is rounded out with a nice still section and a terrific trailer (Savant is envious).  Relieving himself of the responsibilty of being 'accessible,' and dispensing with the grandstanding for attention that marred his later works, Oliver Stone has made his Salvador a jolting shout of outrage, a shake-up we all owe ourselves.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Salvador rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Documentary, 'Into the Valley of Death', Deleted scenes, Audio Commentary by Oliver Stone, photo gallery, Trailer.
Packaging: Alphapak case
Reviewed: June 4, 2001

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