Salvador

March 15, 2012

Everywhere he goes, journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) is met by old friends with a recurring salutation: “Boyle? I thought you were dead.”

It’s a suitable greeting. Boyle, an actual photojournalist whose experiences inspired Salvador, is an addictive, out-of-control personality who is clearly running on empty. As the film begins, he’s hit rock bottom in San Francisco, as his wife leaves him and his press card is revoked.

Going on instincts, Boyle figures that the place to be is where the action is: El Salvador (the film is set in 1980-81). Seeking some glimpse of personal and professional redemption, Boyle heads south. He can’t afford the air fare, so he drives to Central America with a pal, a boozy disc jockey named Dr. Rock (James Belushi, shrewdly used for audience identification and comic relief).

As they ingest various controlled substances, the film starts to look like a version of one of Hunter S. Thompson’s milder escapades. But once in El Salvador, things heat up: Boyle and the doctor are taken prisoner and nearly shot, until they find a sympathetic general.

Then Boyle locates an old girlfriend and goes after the story. It’s a nightmare; the right-wing officials are perpetrating atrocities everywhere, and the leftist rebels are hiding in the hills. While taking communion in church with his girlfriend, Boyle watches an anti-government archbishop get shot dead. Boyle and a fellow photographer (John Savage) explore a dump site of human corpses.

Finally, a sympathetic American (Cynthia Gibb) and two nuns are murdered. There is little doubt that, although the film carefully acknowledges the fictionalization of most of the characters, we are viewing versions of the news stories of the time. This is a film that minces neither words nor actions in its denouncement of the horror of that time, including the American government’s involvement.

Heady stuff, considering that most films today are falling all over themselves to toe the popular line (see Top Gun for a real cheerleading rave-up). The director of Salvador, Scarface writer Oliver Stone, broadly caricatures most of the U.S. government flunkies—they even wear their sweaters tied around their necks, a sure sign of moral instability.

Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boyle, allows some ambiguity—in the end, the leftists are seen to adopt the same brutal tactics as the fascists, and the American ambassador (Michael Murphy) is allowed humanity. But most of the time, Stone’s style is cruel, angry, and slanted, and at one point the film stops altogether so Boyle can assert that he really does love his country. All of which, perhaps, weakens the film as a work of art, while at the same time making Salvador the most sheerly alive movie I’ve seen this year.

Salvador hurtles along at a slashing pace. It’s completely tapped into the energy of Boyle (given a brilliant performance by James Woods, always fun to watch but never better than here). The film spins and whirls, sometimes threatening to go as out of control as its protagonist. Salvador may be controversial, so much so that no major studio would pick it up for U.S. distribution, but it’s also intoxicating. It’s a good swift kick right where American moviemaking needs it.

First published in the Herald, April 1986

It’s easy to criticize Oliver Stone, but if you remember the rah-rah feeling of the Top Gun era, you will always be a little grateful for this furious diatribe, which landed like a gob of expectorant in the middle of the punchbowl. Woods is absolutely in the groove here, and Stone would release Platoon a few months later, launching his feverish run of big projects.

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Platoon

September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.


Wall Street

March 7, 2011

Gekko and Fox: Morning in America

In the opening scene of Wall Street, our young hotshot stockbroker hero wheels into his office for another big day. When his secretary asks him how he’s doing, he says, “If I was doin’ any better it’d be a sin.”

That’s about the size of it. In Oliver Stone’s morality play, this hungry kid sins by becoming the Faust of the stock exchange, selling his soul to a devil/madman/genius who controls half the money in New York City (and this the relevant world).

Stone has mapped out the struggle of good and evil before, most impressively in his battle-zone dramas, Platoon and Salvador. This time he’s indoors, but these soldiers still talk about making a killing, and they even wear uniforms—the suspenders and yellow power ties of the Wall Street infantry.

As the film opens, greenhorn Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) has his eye on the imminent main chance, which means he’s trying to land the ultimate high-roller Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) as a client. When he finally blusters his way into Gekko’s office, the great man is sitting among his Cuban cigars and $600,000 paintings taking his own blood pressure. “Whatever you do,” he tells the kid, “don’t upset me.”

Bud manages to make a modest killing by using an inside tip. Gekko rewards him with a visit from a paid companion and a lunch of (appropriately) raw meat. It isn’t long before the rest of Bud’s life is looking up; Gekko’s former mistress (Daryl Hannah) is now installed as a girlfriend, and Bud musters enough for the down payment on a million-dollar Upper East Side condo, complete with appalling modernist design.

At some point Bud begins to get the idea that his illegal procurement of inside information, including dressing up in a janitor’s outfit to sneak into lawyers’ offices, is going to catch up with him. And even that it may be wrong.

Hollywood folks have been wondering whether this bull-market movie might have lost some of its relevancy, in the wake of the big crash. I suspect not. Presumably the same cutthroats are safely in place in the real Wall Street, despite Black Monday; there weren’t that many brokers jumping out of windows. And greed knows no off-season anyway.

Besides, Wall Street would be an enjoyably entertaining movie anytime. Stone occasionally allows large philosophical observations to drift into his characters’ mouths, and the movie’s a bit too long for its flimsy weight. But most of the dialogue, by Stone and Stanley Weiser, is crackling, and spoken by a colorful cast.

Stone can’t quite make anything interesting out of Daryl Hannah’s role, and Gekko’s wife, played by dishy Sean Young, is around much too little. But Douglas is forceful and reptilian in his Mephistopheles role, with a lot of juicy speeches culminating in his declaration that “Greed is right.”

Sheen, who also played the central role in Platoon, is fine as the callow trader. His father, Martin Sheen, plays his father here, the film’s voice of blue-collar reason, who can’t brook his son’s strange insider language and $400 suits.

Stone has made the movie as an ethical lesson, and he tries to demonstrate that all those dollars that have been flying merrily around for years may actually be connected to ordinary peoples’ lives. Actually, I suspect that the thing audiences may remember about this movie is how much fun it is to be in the limo and the Lear jet. That may not be what Stone intended, but it’s certainly the spirit that made Wall Street what it is today.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

That last paragraph turned out to be true, to the point that the real-life buccaneers of the early 21st century made their role model Gekko look like a piker, an idea Stone got some play out of in the Wall Street sequel. Some young actors involved with the film might have drawn some unintended lessons from it too; give Stone credit for spotting the buzzing grandiosity inside Charlie Sheen, which has lately been on such prominent display. The movie’s overstated in the manner of High Stone, a style that manages to seethe with a certain jangly energy even when it makes you want to slap your head. The sequel did not catch the old crazy fire, possibly because fiction had been embarrassed by reality at that point.