Now that I have fewer than 200 films left on this list, I really need to start whittling down any director that have two or more that I’ve yet to see. Turns out that Oliver Stone has three films remaining, which is how I ended up seeing Salvador today – as well as my second James Woods film in less than a month.
Seeing this made me think how weird it is that certain directors go in and out of acclaim. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, Oliver Stone had a string of hit films (ergo his many entries in the 1001 list) only to become pretty irrelevant in recent years. Other than the biopic W and a very soon after the fact film around the attack on the World Trade Center, I’m not entirely sure what he’s done recently.
Anyway, that’s nothing to do with Salvador – which he released in the same year as Platoon, which would win him the Oscar for Best Director and is also the better film. Given how recently I saw El Norte it is hard to not see Salvador as being somewhat of a companion piece when telling a story of what was happening in El Salvador in the early 1980s.
Where El Norte leaned into being stylised in order to highlight the brutality whilst not going too graphic – Stone takes the opposite approach and seemingly tries to film some scenes in a documentarian style. In some cases this works, but for others it ends up making certain scenes being played more for the shock value. It also gives the whole film a somewhat frenetic and un-focused feel, which somewhat damages some of the political points he was trying to make.
In the end, it’s a great performance by James Woods that keeps this film chugging along. He is able to make you like this flawed and, at many a time, unlikable character and make you really root for them. Especially as you watch his world view blow to pieces when he realizes not only are the Americans funding terror in the region, but the opposite side is resorting to the same death squad tactics.
This was a film that was ballsy to make for the time and has a strong political message behind it. Oliver Stone, however, isn’t one known for subtlety and a bit of a light touch here with fewer pies could have made for something truly great.