14 June 2005


Dir: Oliver Stone :: Script: Oliver Stone & Richard Boyle
Photography: Robert Richardson
Cast: James Woods, Jim Belushi, Elpidia Carillo, John Savage, Cynthia Gibb
US :: 1986

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I first saw 'Salvador', Oliver Stone's gonzo-style, based-on-real-events, tale of an American reporter covering the bloody confllict in El Salvador, as part of the 'Moviedrome' strand, and I remember it fondly. But viewing it again there are many problems with it.

As a story, it's engaging: Richard Boyle [Woods] is an unpleasant American journalist on his uppers who, when he gets evicted from his apartment and his wife leaves him, decides to head down to El Salvador to get the scoop on the civil war brewing there in the early 80s. He takes with him his radio DJ pal, Dr Rock [Belushi], hooks up with the Salvodorean girlfriend he met the last time he was there, Maria [Carrillo], and tries to get down to business.

Guerrillas are in the mountains, the government has cracked down brutally, there are boozed-up death squads cruising around killing campesinos, nuns and journalists alike, and the army is massacring anybody who moves. Reagen has just been elected, and U.S. policy is visibly shifting, with a plainclothes 'State Department' spook and a cigar-chewing American Colonel both doing their bit to combat the Red Menace...

But Stone muddles and mangles real events, leaving the viewer confused by what is going on, beyond a character study of the slob-philosopher Boyle and the latest set piece. From the film, you don't get any sense of why the campesinos are up in arms, why there are paramilitary death squads, but for a brief sermon by Archbishop Romero. Stone reinforces the idea that the paramilitary death squads are just right-wing extremists outside of the government, when the reality is they were firmly under the control of the same oligarchy which backed the government. In comparison with the army, the death squads were small fry (see stats below). Stone also fails to explore the nature of the government at all, preferring instead the sideshow of 'Major Max' (based on 'Major Bob' D'Aubuisson), a communist-hating death squad leader... And even then he muddies the waters, implying he is the head of the Mano Blanco death squad, when in reality D'Aubuisson, a military intelligence officer, was in the Union Guerrera Blanca. And for some reason D'Aubuisson's political party, Arena, is renamed 'Arana'... Only details, but added together and they really do grate.

There are some good performances - Woods and Belushi both convey a brittle realism, and Cynthia Gibb as tabloid TV hack Pauline Axelrod is great - but the clunky speeches Stone sticks in all over the shop are embarrassing. It's a shame, because there are some beautifully structured and photographed scenes (like the government counter-attack on Santa Ana), and the story of El Salvador - and America's rabid attack on it - is a fascinating one. Don't get me wrong, it's enjoyable enough - but Roger Spottiswoode's 'Under FIre' is a far superior and more sophisticated Yankee hack's-eye view of Central America. And it also features Carrillo...

Further viewing:
'Under Fire'
'The Year Of Living Dangerously'
'The Killing Fields'
'Stage Of Siege'/'État De Siège'

Statistics of death squad, army and police killings
(June/July/August/October 1980):

(Office of Legal Aid for the Archdiocese of El Salvador)
Army killings - 1,597; Death squad killings - 404;
Rural police/unidentified - 790
(FMLN-FDR - military and political structure of the insurrection)
Army killings - 1,769; Death squad killings - 591;
Rural police/unidentified - 190


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