“Salvador” (1986), directed by Oliver Stone, featured May & June (2022) on MGM HD, kicked off a string of hits for the director that would establish his reputation as one of the most provocative directors of his era. The movie, also co-written by Stone, dealt with themes that continue to weave through the tapestry of his work, among them, war, politics, conflict, injustice, and morality.
James Woods stars as real-life war photographer Richard Boyle (who co-wrote the film with Stone), a gonzo journalist addicted to booze, women, drugs, and, most of all, the adrenaline high that comes with living on the edge. Burnt out and living off the last fumes of his bank account, Boyle ventures south from San Francisco on his trusty steed, a beat-up Ford Mustang, on a Quixotic mission to El Salvador to cover a burgeoning civil war. He is accompanied by his equally reprobate Pancho Sanza in the form of a down-on-his-luck disc jockey known only as “Dr. Rock” (a fantastic James Belushi). Once in El Salvador, this pair of loose cannons encounter a tinderbox of a country ready to explode.
Shot on location in the mid-eighties, the film covers a series of events that had, in fact, only occurred a few short years earlier. Stone doesn’t flinch from showing the horrors of war with graphic images that shock without being exploitative. The film contains powerful scenes of such brutal realism that one has to remind oneself that it’s a movie and that they have been staged. To Stone’s credit, the story is gripping and entertaining without being trite and the experience of the film is immersive without losing its humanity.
Much of the humanity of the film is powered by James Woods’ Academy Award® nominated and career-making performance. He is a nervous ball of energy, visibly vibrating with contradictions: he is a self-involved user of others with a strong sense of moral justice; a philandering womanizer who is also loyal and capable of self-sacrifice for the woman he loves (Elpidiia Carrillo); and a liar who seeks to expose the truth.
The cast includes a who’s who of great character actors to round out the tale: Tony Plana as a sinister dictator declaring law on his own people; the reliable Michael Murphy as the US ambassador who is a mostly powerless political appointee; and Cynthia Gibb as an idealistic young nun trying to help the country’s poor and underprivileged. And then there are the journalists who observe the country from the remove of the hotel pool (Valerie Wildman) or thrust themselves into the action to the point of self-destruction (the underrated John Savage).
“Salvador” is a comprehensive and deadly serious portrait of a country at war with a haunting ending that reveals how relevant the movie remains to this day. “Salvador” is a tour de force worth another look – featured May and June (2022) on MGM HD.