Saturday, November 12, 2005


Salvador posterAs he is dragged off a Greyhound bus while his Salvadoran girlfriend and her children are taken away by the US Immigration Service, the last we hear from lead character Richard Boyle in Oliver Stone's Salvador is him screaming:
If you send her back they will kill her, they will rape her, and they will mutilate her [. . .] You don't know what it's like in El Salvador! You have no idea what it's like there. You have no idea! . . . Maria!
Then, as the final credits start to roll, this movie whose tagline is simply "Based on a true story" breaks the sense of cinematic illusion, emphasizing rather its documentary claims, by informing us that "Maria and her children survived and were last rumored to be in a refugee camp in Guatemala" and that Richard Boyle is still looking for them.

At the same time, however, we are also told of Boyle's fellow photojournalist, who we have just seen portrayed as he dies taking a picture of a aeroplane strafing the streets of a rebel-held town, that "John Cassady's photos were published."

Hoagland's last framesYet, unlike Boyle, Cassady is not a real person. Rather, he is a character somewhat loosely based on the life of John Hoagland--a US photographer in Salvador who did indeed most likely document his own death with the last six photos he shot, but not at all in the circumstances depicted in Stone's film. (If anything, what's so horrifying about his death scene is how banal it is: a lonely stretch of road and two soldiers on foot.)

Such, of course, are the risks run by any film "based on a true story," above all a film that, as in Salvador's case, also wants to raise political consciousness and galvanize action.

Are we to take the stories of the fictional characters that humanize and mediate political realities at the same level as those realities themselves? If we have reason to doubt what we are told about "John Cassady," don't we also have just as much reason to doubt the final credit's assertion that "To date [as of 1986] the murderers of Archbishop Romero have not been found and the same military leaders continue in power"?

We might find it somewhat unlikely that one person--here, Boyle--should be present both when the Salvadoran archbishop is killed (and just feet away from his assassin) and also in the country's second largest town, Santa Ana, when it's taken by the rebels during the "final offensive" of January 1981; that he should not only happen to be friends with the US lay worker killed with the Maryknoll nuns in December 1980, but also should have been with her the night before her death; that he should know both the US Ambassador to the country and a prominent army colonel.

And if this narrative device of placing the film's lead character at the centre of every twist and turn of Salvador's early 1980s history is unconvincing, might we not also doubt other aspects of the way in which these events are depicted? And what then are we to think of the film's overt political message, that the FMLN's guerrilla uprising was basically justified and that the US military were in league with government death squads?

Oliver Stone's films--and this is arguably the first "proper" Stone film, after a couple of squibs including The Hand--are particularly subject to this tension. Stone characteristically combines melodramatic bombast with his desire to document and proselytize. But the same contradiction afflicts any docudrama, and indeed just about any project of political film-making.

Indeed, more generally, we see here cinema's constitutive split between (to borrow a phrase) the "magical" and the "real." The seventh art is both the most realistic of forms (combining image, sound, and movement) and also, for the same reasons, the most powerfully illusionistic (able to deploy the most special of "special effects"). From its very outset, in the distinction between the Lumière brothers' documentary impulses and George Méliès's preference for magic, these have been the twin, indissociable poles of cinematic representation.

Stone, perhaps more than anyone, wants to combine these two aspects of film both to convince and to shock his audience, to reveal and to dazzle.

Salvador was intended as an intervention into the geopolitics of the late Cold War era. Made at the height of national debate over US policy in Central America, the film aimed both at the minds and the solar plexus of its American audience. Stone himself saw El Salvador as a potential re-run of Vietnam (and would almost immediately go on to film Platoon). But then so did the Reagan Hawks whom he so despised.

Not that this is the only similarity between Stone and those he criticises. More importantly still, the question is whether his own politics of spectacular critique merely mirror, or perhaps play into, a dominant political mode in which image is all, affect trumps persuasion, and "shock and awe" are enshrined as foreign policy and strategy.

Stone is aware of this danger (what else is Natural Born Killers about if not the ambivalent power of the media?), but he wants us to believe him because his is the voice of suffering, and so the real. He has suffered personally (in Vietnam) and for his art (in the numerous obstacles he had to overcome to make Salvador above all). No wonder that the controlling voice of this film should be that of the gonzo journalist Boyle, who repeatedly finds himself beaten up, able to save himself only by his gift of the gab.

James Woods as Richard Boyle
But the problem is that this gonzo affect that is meant to ground Stone's message is, of course, simply another cinematic effect, another of the tall tales that endlessly contribute to Stone's (and Hollywood's) own mystique and mystification.

[Update: on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the killing of the Maryknoll nuns, an article "In His Sister's Name", from Via Tim's El Salvador blog.]

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