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Movie Review: Salvador

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What if Oliver Stone directed a movie about the El Salvador war (which some called “civil”) back in the '80s? What if it was a terrific movie that was lost in the blockbuster successes of some of his other films? What if, more than twenty years later, that same film can still both entertain and describe a time and a war that was important to Latin America and to the United States back 25 years — one that could happen around here again and can be compared to the Iraq conflict?

We went back to the 1986 film of the 1980s events. They were events in a small, Central American country that continue to reverberate in Iraq, let alone in the new Latin America of Hugo Chavez, the ghost of Fidel, and the threat of Obrador.

What if Salvador by Oliver Stone, with its near-star quality casting of James Woods (Richard Boyle) and James Belushi (Dr. Rock), needs to be re-discovered because the movie was so much better than it appeared to many then, and what if it should be paraded out in its digitally preserved incarnation as prophetic? A piece of fine entertainment that just might hint at future U.S. actions in the “little wars”. The ones that only kill little people.

We saw it for the first time just recently and were blown away by the fine performances of actors who are so often just making it toward stardom but seem caught on the periphery. James Woods is usually a heavy of sorts, a little slimy around the edges, perhaps a wheeler-dealer, a con-man, a soul on the verge of losing itself. He does it here with great precision and believable humor, deeply-felt responses to the world gone mad.

Roger Ebert, back in 1986, reviewed Salvador as being “a throwback” to a movie version of a “Hunter S. Thompson story "Where the Buffalo Roam," where hard-living journalists hit the road in a showdown between a scoop and an overdose.” He was right on in 1986. Now it is 2006 and this is history on an action scale and prophecy on a Hollywood scale.

In Salvador there is a James Woods who is cast so perfectly as a photo-journalist of the has-been variety who used up his favors and cannot find jobs to get out of his current messed-up life, left by a shrewish lady with only a soiled disposable diaper to remember her by. She is unimportant.

He is not finding jobs as a freelancer because he has screwed up too often. He deserves it, we know, even if he does have enough bonhomie to always save himself, because he doesn't finish jobs, he gets drunk, distracted, side-tracked. Life comes before work, for him. As a former freelancer, I know that these are the rules you cannot break: Get a job. Do it. On time, on budget. Turn it in. Do it with all your energy plus a little. That is not his personality. He seldom remembers a camera, walks out in a huff from interviews, laughs at the bimbo anchor woman who repeats the party line, writes her scripts from press handouts and one day, Belushi… oh, I can't spoil that scene for you. Sorry.

Woods lands finally, somehow, in spite of job denials, border checks and the condition of his old red Mustang, in El Salvador. Brother Belushi thought they were off to vacation in Guatemala but he didn't sober up enough to notice. El Salvador is no longer el norte. It is Central America and Latin America was (and is) in the midst of change to the Left or Right or in some direction least expected. These former banana republics show their sovereignty and, sometimes, their reptilian brain for violence, cruelty, torture, and evil.

In the movie we meet the hard working nuns who care for children in an orphanage, race to meet schedules, to dodge fire-fights and to scrounge medical equipment or cry when the wrong segment of an arm prosthetic for a child arrives a second time. They are wholesome and dedicated in the film.

It was December 2, 1980 when four Maryknoll Sisters — Catholic nuns without habits who worked to help refugees escape from the growing terror of the Civil War — were together in a van. These were four women who lived a dedicated life in religious fervor and hard work among people who needed help. They left the airport in San Salvador that December night and Oliver Stone went there later with actors to replay those nuns and swarthy soldiers. Visit the Internet memorial to them and their work.

It was December. It was probably chilly. It was dark early because the night may come later on the south side of the border than in Pennsylvania, but the dark comes earlier than you want in places where death squads lurk. The dark came to those innocents.

Stone shows it and shows other scenes of war in the Goya-like way he has, and even keeps us in touch with the battles with the real enemies: the embassy's resident spook and foreign service prep, smiling his charming smile as if the world revolved around his tennis or at least the sweater knotted casually over his tennis togs prep school style, figures of authority or buffoonery.

Belushi is another beautifully cast charater who, too often, takes roles where nothing is expected of him except to play a nutty cop with a cute dog. Stone gives him work to do and work he does with the kind of success that blends humour with tragedies and sometimes rescued the film from the melodrama that encompasses Woods' character.

Boyle (Woods) meets his friend, a real photo-journalist type — camera firmly planted to his eye and the friendly face of an innocent as he calmly shoots the bodies in piles with rigor mortis statuary poses. They are the Charles Addams version of Goya war prints.

Woods has his woman, a Salvadoran beauty who experiences a happy time before the world turns mean and her country is taken by an Army elite that wants to scour the country of those Communists and enemies – any enemy they dislike.

She worries about the stuff of Catholicism – he is divorced, he must confess and they must go to the church women where Archbishop Romero will give them absolution before Mass. Romero does the absolution but doesn't finish his Mass. He is murdered by Army agents. His dying words are, “"May God have mercy on the assassins."

The journalist who wins the prizes and remembers to bring his camera says, “You gotta get close to find the truth. Then you die.” Stone tries to make a story and then put his movie crew close to their own actions. In Born On The Fourth of July, he even elicited a great performance from Tom Cruise that explained the feeling in the gut of a wounded vet. These guys — Woods and Belushi — find their garbage dump packed full of mouldering bodies.

Films move back to give us the view of the whole. Stone moves forward and gets close just as did his journalist character and obviously there is a journalist tucked inside Stone who looks at movies as pseudo-documentaries on which he can hang some facts, some romance, a bit of preaching and a handsome film.

One fact was the hard-voiced stubborn straight man for the Church, Archbishop Romero. Our hero is absolved in a calming confession-windowed scene. Their Mass is marred by the violence that reached a dramatic apex in 1980 with the murder of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, on March 24. Romero, who had been selected as archbishop in part because of his moderate political views, was influenced strongly by the liberation theology movement, and he was appalled by the brutality employed with increasing frequency by government forces against the populace and particularly against the clergy.

In his weekly radio homilies, he related statistics on political assassination and excesses committed by the military. He frequently urged soldiers to refuse to carry out what he characterized as immoral orders. His high profile made him an important political figure, and he had used his influence to urge the PDC to pull out of the junta and to argue against United States military aid to El Salvador. Despite his stature as the country's Catholic primate, he was targeted for assassination; all indications are that the killing was carried out by the right wing.

The growing violence and its place in the world press: nuns raped and killed, Jesuit priests murdered along with their housekeeper and her son, thousands “disappeared” affected even Washington, which had so dutifully funded it.

Joe Moakley, Massachusetts's senator, was sent to El Salvador to investigate the alleged atrocities. Moakley's report revealed the cruel injustice of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government, setting in motion an international process to end the war. Both sides of the conflict in El Salvador approached the United Nations for help in negotiating a settlement. The United Nations sponsored talks, which culminated in the January 1992 signing of the Peace Accords, ending 12 years of civil war.

Woods realizes that what is important to him is to save the life of his woman and her children. They run for it, for the lives of the innocents. They head for America.

More should be seen to be enjoyed. It is entertainment from the residue of a war, education in an action/adventure romp in a sad Mustang. It is the story of the growth of a man from failure without understanding to failure with the weight of tragic knowledge lodged between his eyes.

There was El Salvador and the Jesuits killed, the Maryknoll sisters brutalized and executed and then the apocryphal massacre at El Mozote which was known by the locals but disbelieved and brought to light in the '90s. The description, the story of the land and the people and the violence and inhumanity is well-written by Mark Danner.

I think it one of Stone's best efforts, worthy of the masters of the genre like Costas-Gavras in Z and reminding me of John Dos Passos back in his 1930 novels with mixtures of story and headlines, stories and clips of the times to go with his fiction about the time.

Now our new century has begun with big changes happenning or rearing new heads that might scare us and will certainly leave the government spooks planning new interventions into the region of our neighbors that might be as ill-conceived as was El Salvador.

The Congressman is right to say, “The lessons of El Salvador still resonate today.” Should we give aid to militaries that are engaged in gross violations of human rights or are in league with paramilitary death squads? How do we support peace agreements once they've been successfully negotiated? Whether in Colombia or East Timor or the Balkans, the lessons of El Salvador are still relevant.

Britain's outspoken Ambassador to the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, just recently compared Iraq and El Salvador when he wrote of evidence pointing to the “Salvadoran Option” under consideration by the Allies in Iraq. Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell Newsweek.

I have to give this film an 8.2 on my 10 point scale. The American involvement in the real version of the war only gets 1.8. The war directors have a long way to go to get a sequel together.

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