Salvador (1986): Oliver Stone Directs James Woods in Oscar-Nominated Turn

Hemdale Release

Oliver Stone made “Salvador,” his first major film independently, outside the studio system, and benefited from the process in every possible way effort.

Though structurally messy, this jittery, restless saga centers on an obsessive American photojournalist (well cast with James Woods, who’s brilliant), who drives into the politically troubled El Salvador and confronts the ugly side of American imperialism. Put it this way: It’s an ideologically critical, energetically dynamic movie that Marlon Brando, at its most political, would have approved of, and perhaps even play if it were made in the 1950s or 1960s.

The writing by Stone and Richard Boyle, based on the latter’s real-life story is uneven. The plot begins in 1980, as Boyle, then a vet but unemployed journo decides to go to El Salvador with his buddy, Dr. Rock (James Belushi, in one of his better turns), an unemployed disc jokey. Boyle promisesand to a large extent deliversdrugs, booze, and sex (with prostitutes). At first the idea is to make a quick buck in a country torn by “little guerrilla war,” a stab at biases of American mass media, misled by Reagan, in reporting the situation down there.

Things change, however, as soon as the duo cross the border, throwing the two into turmoil, and involving them in life-threatening situation as a result of the devastating civil war. From that point on, the film assumes the shape of a surreal nightmare that chronicles the chaos in El Slavador in 1980-1981. The film draws a classic contrast between jaded leftists Americans and the decent, honest Salvadorian people who have to endure senseless horror, confusion, and despair.

As would become clear in future Stone films (“Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “The Doors,” “JFK”), Salvador wears its politics on its sleeves, replete with preachy speeches and messages, and romantic interlude is not particularly compelling; it’s more like a disruption.

Yet the film displays raw political and emotional power, and the nervous, edgy tone is always right for depicting his unstable persona as well as unstable country.
In many ways, “Salvador” is a sensationalistic, pulp fiction work, but in its good moments, which are plentiful, it surpasses the quality of “Platoon,” made the same year on a bigger budget.

Woods, who previously made TV and theater, plays the cool anti-hero to the hilt in a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance (see below).

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Screenplay (Original): Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle
Actor: James Woods

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1986, the Best Actor winner was Paul Newman for “The Color of Money.” The Original Screenplay Oscar went to Woody Allen for “Hannah and Her Sisters.”