Oliver Stone’s USA

Heaven and Earth

a film directed by Oliver Stone, produced by Arnon Milchan and Robert Kline and A. Kitman Ho and Oliver Stone
Warner Bros

Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone; drawing by David Levine

Salvador, the 1986 movie that introduced the directorial work of Oliver Stone to the world, is a film of considerable interest. Most people who saw it were impressed by its gritty, cinema-verité style and its atmosphere of headlong, unpredictable violence. Everything about it seemed authentic, from the squalid anti-glamour of its mean Central American streets to its adrenaline-happy, pot-head post-Vietnam journalist characters and the absence of stars. James Woods as a hip newspaperman had a seedy, quasi-psychopathic, fascinating presence and the film’s urgency benefited greatly from his wired, high-risk performance. Moreover, its plot incorporated events right out of the recent headlines about US policy in Central America. It was a vivid opinionated movie, replete with energy and talent, that attracted, and deserved much attention.

There was also a lot in Salvador that marked Oliver Stone as a professional, in the traditional Hollywood sense of the word. This would turn out to be good news for him in important ways, and certainly for the people whose fortunes were connected with the subsequent commercial success of his pictures. It would be less auspicious for the dwindling band of dervishes still scanning the horizon for the return of Orson Welles. “Art” is not what the moguls in California now propose to sell the Japanese, and it was apparent even then that, in that regard, Oliver Stone would not be a problem.

The only thing really novel about Salvador was its timeliness. Its mildly druggy, anti-establishment buddy team—Woods and James Belushi—provided yuppie audiences the shock of recognizing the likes of Hunter Thompson. Scenes in which the hippies get to tell off flaky “establishment” journalists and too-handsome US military-industrial zombies took everyone back to the glory days of the Sixties. In them, Stone was displaying a sure instinct for the spirit every Hollywood director since Edwin S. Porter has tried to summon forth—the little kid inside every moviegoer who likes to bounce up and down in the seat and clap.

So our heroes in Salvador, not bleeding-heart intellectuals but rough-and-ready American lugs, find themselves sympathizing with the rebels. American right-mindedness goes abroad, again. In one scene, Woods is shown walking up and down, exhorting rebel firing squads to spare their victims lest in punishing their enemies the rebels become “no better than them,” or words to that effect—at which point the film briefly becomes a considerably less serious examination of the Central American troubles than Woody Allen’s Bananas, which has a similar speech played for laughs.

Salvador is safely located in the traditional left-liberal ethos of Hollywood. In spite of its headlong pace and verismo, the fundamental things apply and three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. If the shade of the Motion Picture Division of World War II’s Office of War Information could rise there would be ghostly applause. The OWI would be particularly gratified by the way…

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