“It’s like Baltimore, or something.”
Salvador, from director Oliver Stone, takes a look at the war in El Salvador during 1980-1981 through the eyes of a renegade photographer. The film, critical of American support of the right wing Revolutionary Government Junta and its death squads illustrates the country’s messy political, domestic and military situation. The result is a hodge podge blend of spot-on political acuity mixed with the usual ridiculous Hollywoodisms (yes, I made up the word, but it fits).
When dumped by his wife in San Francisco, seasoned war photographer Richard Boyle (James Woods) decides to head for the war action in El Salvador, and he takes along DJ Doctor Rock (James Belushi) mainly for the use of his car. Doctor Rock thinks they’re heading for a resort, and he’s shocked when they arrive in El Salvador. A few minutes inside the border confirm Rock’s worst fears about the country.
Boyle’s other motive for returning to El Salvador, as it turns out, is to rescue a young El Salvadorian woman, Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) and her baby. As events in El Salvador spiral out of control, Boyle and Maria’s escape becomes problematic. This is complicated by Boyle’s adversarial relationship with right wing military leader Major Max, and Boyle’s intentions to capture some photographic evidence of the massacres taking place in the country.
The film does a good job of illustrating events as they unfold–the murder of Archbishop Romero, the rape and murder of three young nuns and a popular lay worker, and the fact that America is stirring a very ugly conflict. While American “Advisors” hang out in a lush resort hotel and largely avoid the realities of what is taking place, the countryside is littered with rotting human carcasses. The massacre of civilians is blamed on left-wing death squads, but Boyle quickly realizes that the country is in the hands of a right wing government who are slaughtering thousands and trying to stick the blame on the FMLN guerillas. The film also illustrates, quite well, American paranoia when it comes to excusing involvement in El Salvador in order to head off ludicrous fears regarding Castro’s supposed intentions to invade America. There’s one excellent scene in which Boyle faces off some fellow Americans. He’s disliked because he’s a leftie, and he tries, valiantly, to explain his moral problem with America’s involvement and support of the murderous right wing: “I’m left wing, but I’m not a communist. You guys never seem to be able to tell the difference.”
The film however, slides into absurd Hollywoodisms. For a start, just on a plot level, since when did Boyle suddenly decide that Maria was the love of his life? According to the film she didn’t seem to exist until Boyle’s wife leaves him, and then it suddenly becomes an imperative to travel down to El Salvador. Furthermore the film continually perpetuates stereotypes by trivializing, idealizing and simplifying. The trivializing images: The villains of the piece (Major Max and a few crass American officials) are simply stock characters–not real people. There are the idealized images: Maria–who incidentally lives in a hut on the beach–is portrayed as fancifully swinging naked in a hammock with Boyle, allowing herself to be photographed by her brother. The simplified images: Boyle is periodically portrayed as some sort of American action hero–a most unfortunate tendency that is repeated ad nauseam in Hollywood films. Salvador is a film that is supposedly outside of the mainstream, and yet it continually projects innate American superiority in the film’s images. So, it’s a mixed bag–some good–some bad.