Based on the devastating Salvadoran civil war of 1980-1992, and told from the perspective of American photojournalist Richard Boyle (James Woods), Oliver Stone’s third film lacks the polish of his later work, but is no less excoriating in its condemnation of the US’s support for brutal regimes ‘friendly’ to American interests.
Boyle is not a man of principle. In addition to being a down-and-out photographer, he’s a drunk, a philanderer and a cynic, happy to exploit human misery to sell his images to the Associated Press. A disclaimer at the start of Salvador warns that while the events of the film are true, individual characters have been fictionalised. Certainly this is true of the American ambassador Thomas Kelly (Michael Murphy) and brutal Salvadoran army Major Max (Tony Plana) – both stand-ins for their real-life counterparts – but one suspects that Boyle’s amorality is fairly close to reality.
Getting wind of the growing conflict in El Salvador, in which government forces are brutally suppressing revolutionary forces by brutalising citizens, Boyle cons his DJ friend Dr. Rock (Jim Belushi) to head down with him to cover the story. Joking about getting “the best pussy in the world”, they’re pretty repellent, and seemingly oblivious to the atrocities going on around them.
It’s not long, however, before brutal reality hits them both squarely in the face, being picked up by the army and nearly killed, while the burning corpses of Salvadorans litter the road. There’s a gonzo-like quality at play here, both in Boyle’s journalism and in the filmmaking itself. Stone’s naturalistic camera has a documentary feel to it – perfect for such immediate and political material, but at odds with the strange road-movie tone of the film’s first half. The editing, too, is rough around the edges, but it all adds to the sense of madness that pervades El Salvador – a sense that only grows the more intense the further that Boyle journeys into this Central American heart of darkness.
Boyle’s reconciliation with his long-dormant humanity begins when he reconnects with his girlfriend María (Elpidia Carrillo) and her two children. This reconciliation is accelerated when a group of female American aid workers – one of whom Boyle is friends with – are raped and murdered by Salvadoran forces. Carrillo gives a fine performance in a fairly thankless role, while the rape scene is deeply shocking and unvarnished. Nevertheless, it is telling that these women exist purely to further Boyle’s own development, with nary a moment of reflection for the way that he and his male companions discuss and use women themselves.
Boyle’s personal investment in the Salvadoran atrocity is a conduit for what should have been global outrage at the real events. But because the right-wing regime opposed communism, the US not only tolerated the murder of their own citizens, but also abetted the government in suppressing the revolutionaries through military aid. Salvador gives figure to that unspoken outrage and remains a powerful condemnation of US complicity in the crimes of global regimes.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell