Just finished watching Salvador, a movie I’ve wanted to see for a long time and has been saved on the tivo for at least a month now. I’ve certainly missed the non-crazy Oliver Stone. This was released in February of 1986, and Stone also had Platoon released in december that same year. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any director who’s had two films this good come out in the same year. I’d rank it right now as the number 5 film of that year, just behind Aliens.
James Woods stars as a Hunter S. Thompson-esque photojournalist named Richard Boyle who drags his DJ buddy (james Belushi, who does not ruin the movie) to El Salvador to get drunk, smoke pot and try to get a job taking pictures of the revolution. No one will hire him because he’s either too drunk, too dishonest or too leftist to be relied on to take pictures of the various atrocities committed by right-wing death squads, left-wing guerillas or the American military-intelligence ‘advisors’. It’s by far the best performance I’ve seen Woods give. He’s like Sam Waterston’s Sydney Schanberg (from The Killing Fields, who Boyle mentions several times, claiming to have been “The Last Man In Cambodia” while Schanberg was in New York celebrating his Pulitzer) except he’s more like a real human being than a walking, preaching conscience-machine. What Stone, Woods and Boyle (who co-wrote the film with Stone, based on his own experiences) tap into is the same thing Thompson did in the best of his work: use the crazy sex, drugs and alcohol stuff to hook the viewer/reader into the story, then hit them with the overwhelming truth of their message without them noticing that you’ve turned all serious. The point is that happened in El Salvador was bad enough to sober up Dr. Gonzo.
Another thing I loved about this movie was the depiction of the photojournalists at work. John Savage plays John Cassady, a journalist based on John Hoagland, about whom you can read at this site and who took the above photo, and watching him and Woods at work is fascinating. Not just the way they drunkenly stagger through the war zones, or the way they constantly have their cameras out, ready for The Big Picture to need to be taken at any moment, or even the way they use their cameras as their only defense against the death squads that would probably enjoy killing them (Cassady and Boyle routinely get out of trouble by offering to photograph the petty fascists threatening their lives, offering to make them famous in exchange for not getting murdered). The climax of the film, when Woods and Savage are running through an all-out battle between the guerillas and the US-supported government troops is remarkable. In the 20 years since, I don’t know that I’ve seen a battle sequence as good as this. It’s as good as anything in Saving Private Ryan, and much more compelling.
The movie almost loses it when Woods gives his big speech to the US military and CIA representatives about how wrong they are for supporting the death squads. A later Oliver Stone would give in to his need to preach and this would turn cheesy and ineffective, as Sam Waterston’s speech is at the end of The Killing Fields. But this pre-JFK Stone was still feisty. He actually gives the military guy an argument I hadn’t heard before: that letting the peasant rebels take over is exactly what the US did in Cambodia, and those peasants turned into the Khmer Rouge and killed millions of people. It isn’t a particularly compelling argument, but at least it’s something. And it gives Boyle a chance to refute that argument, which only makes his indictment of our government that much stronger. Instead of preaching, Boyle argues. Roland Joffé, in the Killing Fields, doesn’t allow the US the benefit of making even a specious argument in its own defense. Instead, we get Sam Waterston’s righteous indignation. The ultimate effect on the audience is totally different: The Killing Fields makes you feel depressed and guilty, Salvador makes you angry. That’s what the left needs, as much now as ever.