Oliver Stone’s cinema is always at its best when it is most explicitly akin to the art form it most closely mimics: propaganda. That’s not a put-down; all cinema is subjective, and while most films strive for the diaphanous lie of objectivity, a live-wire polemical of spitfire bias isn’t something to shun. Objectivity, anyway, is often a pacifying gesture for films without an authorial personality or a humbling vision of their own camera’s perspective – a clinical, balanced approach only squares off the edges of the audience-camera dialectic and hides the essence of all cinema as a perspective, a vision, an embodiment of an idea or a view. Objectivity is nothing more than a cemetery where films without a pulse, without an identity of their own, go to lay their heads down to rest.
Stone’s style isn’t unique, but it is a boldface and brio-filled reflection of a cocaine-addled decade that boldly foregrounds the instability of its own aesthetic, one equal parts Pontecorvo indignation and Peckinpah insolence. Released in the same year as Stone’s career-making in-the-trenches Platoon, the grotto of Salvador is a superior film through and through. While Platoon slightly pacified its deranged anger with baroque visual gestures out of a byzantine opera more than the heart of darkness swamps of Southeast Asia, Salvador keeps things low-to-the-ground. If Platoon was equal parts Aerosmith-grit and Boston-histrionics, Salvador is the snarling Iggy-Pop-fronting-Stooges of war pictures.
Stone wastes no time establishing an uneasy groove right in the gutter as down-on-his-luck journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) and shock-jock Dr. Rock ( an appropriately scuzzy Jim Belushi) use the conflagration of early ’80s El Salvador as a backdrop for a perverted treasure-seeking journey, like a pair of Indiana Jones’ dropped in a rattled, scorched-earth The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Stone’s screenplay, co-written with the real-life Boyle, adopts a reportorial, chattery tone out of Sam Fuller (an obvious inspiration) and the filmmaking emphasizes a certain subjective hysteria out of the Gonzo school of Hunter S. Thompson, with Boyle’s last-ditch effort to find life in death throwing him out of the frying pan and into the fire.
It’s a saving grace then that Stone’s efforts behind the camera are red-hot, especially abetted by now-illustrious cinematographer Robert Richardson in one of his earliest films, here buttressing the pandemonium with a New Hollywood style cinema verite prowling camera that enjoins us to consider the intersection of docufiction and fever dream. Editor Claire Simpson, who like Stone won an Oscar for Platoon the same year, also keeps the pulsing mania running and inveterate throughout, cutting like a mad woman and finagling scenes to end before we expect them and keep us on our proverbial toes.
The heart of the film is Woods, who lends a nervous, jittery energy to the piece like he’s been fumigated on too many Howard Hawks pictures and dropped in a hostile locale with a mouth as both his chief obstacle to success and his only weapon to save himself. Boyle’s vision of himself as an acid-casualty is satisfyingly astringent, especially because the film doesn’t tramp down the acidulous viscosity by casting him as a white knight or a savior of the people in El Salvador; much like Indiana Jones, in fact, he’s ultimately hopelessly set adrift in a world that doesn’t have much use for him, surviving only to realize how frail his ego truly is. If the film’s prism to refracting concerns about US involvement in Central America is ultimately a white male, the film at least lacerates the idea of white male agency while it’s at it.
Stone’s heart clearly lies with the Leftist revolutionaries, and although he doesn’t cast his film in overtly anti-US armor, this atomic bomb of a radiated buddy film isn’t likely to be mistaken for perpetuating the “fair and balanced” vision of the world that has slitheringly crept the center to the right over the past four decades. Even the obligatory “you’re becoming just like them” scene aimed at the overzealous revolutionaries reads less like judgmental hand-wringing and more like a reminder that tactics lie in compromised, but often necessarily so, eye of the beholder.
Salvador isn’t the apex of Stone’s formal invention as the modern era’s foremost firebrand filmmaker – it would take a few years, until 1991, before he essayed a vertiginous cinematic work to rival the canon of his cinematic godfather Costa-Gavras. But the coarse, harried, unfixed nature of Salvador, a from-the-hip, fresh-from-the-womb sensationalist vision of a sensational conflict is the mark of a filmmaker without easy, overdetermined answers for a battleground that often defies the hubris to assume you know what’s really going on. Even the comedy is high-strung and skittish in this scalding -hot treatise on one of the preeminent failures of modern US international policy.