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  Salvador Journalism Under Fire
Year: 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Stars: James Woods, James Belushi, Michael Murphy, John Savage, Elpidia Carrillo, Tony Plana, Colby Chester, Cynthia Gibb, Will McMillan, Valerie Wildman, José Carlos Ruiz, Jorge Luke, Juan Fernández, Salvador Sánchez, Rosario Zúñiga, Martín Fuentes, John Doe
Genre: Drama, War, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 2 votes)
Review: The year is 1980 and photographic journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) is having trouble at home: he and his young family have been kicked out their apartment, so he desperately needs work. He gets on the phone to whoever he thinks can help him, then has a brainwave: why not return to El Salvador, that troubled Central American country, where he has left behind another woman, Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) from his last visit, which to be honest saw him making enemies of the wrong sort of people? Taking his car and as a companion redundant DJ Doctor Rock (James Belushi), he heads south of the border...

Salvador was a kind of biopic of journalist Rick Boyle, who fed his dangerous experiences into the script he wrote with the director Oliver Stone. Obviously some artistic licence was employed as things did not happen precisely as depicted here, but the gist of it, the message the newly-left wing Stone wished to convey with the zeal of the convert, was true enough. Which was that the United States had been interfering with Central American politics thanks to their anti-Communist paranoia - not wanting another Cuba down South, they empowered some of the most violent and corrupt fascistic governments there to ensure that no more Fidel Castro clones were spawned. Not that the Communists were saints, and Stone was well aware of that.

Nevertheless, in the mid eighties, at the height of Reaganism, all people saw were the criticisms of America, and audiences stayed away in droves, leading Stone, who was trying to establish himself as a director rather than a screenwriter for hire by this point, to think he'd blown his big chance. Then along came a certain film called Platoon, and that career never looked back (well, apart from Alexander, maybe), but that hit, captivating the navel gazing of the States and their guilt over the Vietnam War, wasn't a patch on Salvador when it came to raw, vital and searing filmmaking. It may have been a more chaotic work, and harder to get a handle on than the simple "War is bad" lessons of its successor, but it remained in many minds Stone's finest achievement.

Though it took a hard won path to that esteem, in spite of the remarkable Woods performance garnering an Oscar nomination, leaving it often forgotten in the wake of its creator's more high profile works. Woods poured his heart and soul into the Boyle character, so that we can see he's not entirely trustworthy, is willing to exploit those around him for his own gain, financial and otherwise, but his essential moral code means he is as well qualified to ask the pertinent questions of the utterly unscrupulous as anybody, and indeed in scene after scene we watch him recklessly do just that, which leads to violence against him and those he should be looking out for. But that moral sense only indicates to us that Boyle has the best interests of the people of El Salvador at heart.

He's not the only one, as the aid workers and the citizens brave enough to stand up for human rights are offered praise and respect too, but by doing so they put themselves in a very difficult position, one which sees many meet horrendous fates. Only Boyle manages to survive time and again as he sees people he knows and likes, even loves, fall prey to the depraved and venal who claim to be caring for those unfortunates stuck in the middle, yet are only out to spread terror and line their pockets as long as they can stay in control. Not that the Communists come out of this any more noble than the U.S. backed government, as in a crucial late scene we see they can be just as capable of war atrocities as the authorities which have driven them to attempt revolution. It is, at the end, Boyle's story we have to take on board, but this was no "those poor Americans - oh, were there others involved?" self-centred lament, as the anguish of Stone's deeply felt horror at the war proved both his strength, and the opportunity for conscience-raising excellence. Music by Georges Delerue.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Oliver Stone  (1946 - )

Didactic, aggressive and in-your-face American writer-director who, after directing a couple of horrors (Seizure and The Hand) and writing Midnight Express and Scarface, settled into his own brand of political state-of-the-nation films like Salvador, the Oscar-winning Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Slightly out of character were The Doors and U-Turn: respectively, a celebration of the late sixties and a sweaty thriller. In 2004 he experienced his biggest flop with Alexander, a historical epic, but followed it with the reverent World Trade Center and a biopic of then just-leaving President George W. Bush. A belated sequel to Wall Street and gangster movie Savages were next. Say what you like, he has made his mark and loads of people have an opinion on him.

Review Comments (2)
Posted by:
Andrew Pragasam
14 Aug 2012
  Oliver Stone's greatest film redeems him for all his hectoring, heavy-handed work in later years, most notably Natural Born Killers. A towering performance from the peerless James Woods. This is gut-wrenching stuff.
Posted by:
Graeme Clark
14 Aug 2012
  It's still in no way subtle or downplayed, but it's his most moving and emotionally involving film. Trouble was, when it failed to catch on much he went all out for attention in his following works which was a pity.

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