Saturday, September 20, 2014
Revisiting Oliver Stone's SALVADOR
I've always remembered SALVADOR (1985) - now available as a limited edition Blu-ray disc from Twilight Time - as Oliver Stone's best film, but last night's revisit found it not aging so well. The early scenes set in San Francisco, introducing rogue journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) as someone whose personal life is spiralling out of control, seemed so nakedly contrived and phony (in that special pastel way so many 1980s films seem to be) that it set up the question, "If the scenes shot in your own country seem unbelievable, how is this going to fare any better once we get to El Salvador?"
Well, I found much of the El Salvador material overly contrived as well. Stone can't be faulted for not warning us - we're told that the characters have been fictionalized up front - but there is fictionalizing that is done with delicacy to lure the viewer to truths underlying characterization, and then you have composited caricature, which is closer to what we have here. In the plus column, John Savage steals every scene as photojournalist John Cassady - by becoming his character rather than aspiring to a grand slam, and Cindy Gibb gives her role as an ill-fated American nun exactly what the film needs to make her eventual loss emotionally resonant and calculable. What I remembered as a strong, possibly career-best, performance by James Woods is basically James Woods giving us more James Woods than we need to decide for ourselves whether or not Boyle (Stone's co-screenwriter, incidentally) is an asshole; the whole movie seems pitched to confirm this, even in so many words, and his tendency to overshoot the mark draws more comic attention to himself than to the sober intentions of the movie. It can't be denied that SALVADOR contains some powerful scenes, but almost without exception what makes them powerful is the grim requiem music played over them and the viewer feels imposed upon by music that requires a rote response.
Toward the end of the picture, a lot of scenes start ending with dissolves all of a sudden, indicating a much more protracted fleeing from El Salvador in an earlier cut than we're given, which is grueling enough. The agony of these final scenes depend on the film having established the authenticity of Boyle's love for the Salvadoran woman Maria (Elpidia Carillo), which it takes pains to do, but having Boyle return to the Catholic church for the first time in 30 years, confessing his ruinous sins to a priest for a pittance of a penance, but Woods can't help playing these scenes for too much of a laugh, so the film is ultimately deprived of the unbearably heart-rending finale it was aiming for. As it is, it's what we might adequately term a downer.
There is a great film in here somewhere, and it resides in the Stone-Boyle script, which uses Boyle's self-destructive spiral and his self-serving retreat (with pal DJ Rock, played by Jim Belushi as a walking, talking, smoking, drinking, whining pig pinata of American consumption and greed) into El Salvador as one of several foregrounded metaphors for a corrupt America's contribution to El Salvador's violent instability. The implication with Boyle's character is specifically what the film says pointedly when the Sandanistas ride into town on horseback, overthrow the local military base and start performing executions in the public square - that the solution is no better than the problem. Boyle thinks he's making a difference by drawing attention to this conflict, but he's really looking for a second chance - not even that: another way out.
This release marks SALVADOR's Blu-ray debut, and high definition lends impressive depth and detail to the film's compositions, and the 5.1 audio is wildly directional when it counts. Limited to the usual 3000 copies, Twilight Time's Blu-ray disc includes the 62m making-of documentary and 25m of deleted scenes included with the previous 2001 "Special Edition" DVD release from Fox Searchlight. Exclusive to this release are an isolated track of Georges Delerue's score, and a new audio commentary by Stone. I've not yet dipped into these extras, but I am interested in doing so. The film may have dated into more of an argument than it used to be, but it's still an argument worth having - and this disc comes to the debate generously prepared.
Posted by Tim Lucas at Saturday, September 20, 2014