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SALVADOR (director/writer: Oliver Stone; screenwriter: Richard Boyle; cinematographer: Robert Richardson; editor: Claire Simpson; music: Georges Delerue; cast: James Woods (Richard Boyle), James Belushi (Doctor Rock), Michael Murphy (Ambassador Thomas Kelly), John Savage (John Cassady), Elpedia Carrillo (María), Tony Plana (Maj. Maximiliano ‘Major Max’ Casanova), Cynthia Gibb (Cathy Moore), Colby Chester (Jack Morgan), Valerie Wildman (Pauline Axelrod), Jorge Luke (Col. Julio Figueroa), José Carlos Ruiz (Archbishop Romero); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gerald Green/Oliver Stone; Hemdale; 1986)
“Brutally moving depiction of the civil war in El Salvador in 1980.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Oliver Stone’s (“Seizure-1974″/”The Hand-1981″/”Platoon-1986”) first open venture into making the kind of political film that earned him his future rep, is a powerful, passionate, reckless and brutally moving depiction of the civil war in El Salvador in 1980 (filmed in Mexico). It was co-scripted with the director by American journalist Richard Boyle, whose story the film is based on. Though based on true events, Stone chooses to fictionalize events at will and is noticeably more disturbed by right-wing government than left-wing guerrilla atrocities.

It begins with a bummed out unemployed Richard Boyle (James Woods), living a free-spirited life indulging in booze, drugs and womanizing, bailed out of jail in San Francisco, for traffic violations, by his best friend, another free-spirit, the rock disc jockey known as Dr. Rock (James Belushi). Boyle, anxious to get back to being a foreign war correspondent after his Latin American wife dumps him, drives with the reluctant DJ to Salvador. Soon after arriving, he realizes that the press reports from America haven’t done justice to the mayhem and violence taking place, and his dream of getting a well-paid easy job, plenty of pussy and drugs was only a pipe dream. There are right-wing death squads terrorizing the countryside, as there’s a deadly civil war raging between left-wing guerrillas and the government’s paramilitary. Stopped at a roadblock, he witnesses the human carnage and the American tourist is treated in a frightfully humiliating way by the paramilitary. Boyle’s contacts from the time he spent here in the 1960s include the fascist Major Max, Newsweek’s ace photojournalist John Cassidy, an old girlfriend (Cynthia Gibb) with connections to American government officials, the current Carter appointed American ambassador Tom Kelly (depicted as a nice guy but ineffectual), and his wife’s devout Catholic sister Maria (Elpedia Carrillo). The eager Boyle eventually lands a photojournalist gig through his media contacts. When Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero is gunned down at a church service he attends by a lone assassin, Boyle starts taking his journalism more seriously as he’s deeply affected by the country’s brutality and worried that Maria, now his girlfriend, is on the right-wing hit list for failure to have the mandatory voting card. The paranoid always manic Boyle documents the new Reagan administration’s backing of the right-wing government and moves this plotless tale haphazardly from one frantic episodic action scene to the other, while managing to get at the bloody horrors of the war but in a too obvious polemical manner. The real purpose for Stone is to show how the Reagan government chose the wrong side, and how bloody are its hands.

The film is fueled by the great overcharged performance by James Woods, as he moves from a hustling third-rate photojournalist to one still wavering between opportunistic gain, self-sacrifice and professional integrity. Also, worth noting, is the terrific photography by Robert Richardson that caught the gritty war-torn atmosphere, the goon squads in action, the sharp contrasts between the lifestyles of the rich and poor, and the amazing realistic action sequences that remain the heart of this fictionalized account.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”