Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Salvador (1985)
Studio Line: MGM

Nominated for two Oscars®, this "gripping" (Newsweek), semi-biographical account of photojournalist Richard Boyle's tumultuous experiences in war-torn El Salvador "has a power you can feel" (The Hollywood Reporter)! James Woods gives his "fullest, most humane, most emotional performance" (New York Magazine) to date in this "gritty, harrowing and bold thriller" (Gannett Newspapers).

It's 1980. Young men, women and children are being brutally killed in a bloody civil war in El Salvador. It's a horrific setting… but a perfect one for Richard Boyle, a sleazy war photojournalist whose career needs a jumpstart. Armed with his camera, Boyle joins the front lines in an attempt to capture atrocious-but-valuable images of the pain and horror. But with each picture he takes, he catches a tragic side of humanity that ignites his long-buried compassion. And he unexpectedly discovers something that will change him forever: his soul.

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: James Woods, James Belushi, Michael Murphy, John Savage
Nominated for Best Actor-James Wood; Best Screenplay. 1987.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16X9; audio English Dolby Surround 5.1; subtitles French, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - double layered; rated R; 120 min.; 24 chapters; $24.98; 6/5/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Director Oliver Stone; “Into the Valley of Death” Documentary; Eight Deleted Scenes; Trailer; Photo Gallery; Collectible Booklet.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/A-

As I might have mentioned in some of my reviews of music DVDs, I’ve been a fairly heavy concert-goer for many years. As far as I’m concerned, my first rock show occurred in January 1982, when I saw the Kinks. I say “as far as I’m concerned” because unfortunately, this statement isn’t a fact. In truth, I’d literally entered the concert arena for the first time more than four years prior when I went to a December 1977 KISS show. Because I prefer to chalk that one up to youthful indiscretion, I’ve always considered the Kinks performance as my initial concert experience.

I have a feeling that Oliver Stone may also prefer to ignore history when the subject of his first film arises. The records indicate that Stone directed two flicks prior to 1986’s Salvador; he was the guiding force behind 1974’s Seizure and 1981’s The Hand. However, those two movies seem to have little to do with the Stone we know so well; I’ve never seen either, but apparently both were silly horror flicks that don’t fit in with the politically-active Stone who later made his mark.

Just as my early affection for the Kinks much better represents my continued taste in music than did the weak theatrics of KISS, Salvador shows many more signs of the quintessential Stone than did his earlier work. Though Stone didn’t seem quite as self-assured during Salvador, it nonetheless offered many of his hallmarks and it matches up neatly with his later work.

Salvador tells the semi-biographical story of journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods). As the film starts, Boyle is very down on his luck; he makes little money, and after his family gets evicted from their scummy San Francisco apartment, his wife leaves him. Rather than attempt to get his life together, Boyle recruits his similarly-wild friend Dr. Rock (Jim Belushi) to head south with him. Ultimately Boyle convinces Rock that El Salvador is the place to be, as he entices Rock with stories of cheap, quality prostitutes and dismisses tales of political unrest and violence.

Of course, the latter are in much greater evidence than are the former, and both Boyle and Rock quickly find themselves stuck in Nowheresville. They’re stuck in the middle of the social turbulence and have few means of support. However, Boyle milks some old contacts for help and slowly gets back on his journalistic game, all while he tries to help his Salvadoran girlfriend escape harm.

Frankly, that plot synopsis doesn’t really do justice to Salvador, as the movie isn’t about any particular storyline. I thought the film dealt mainly with Boyle’s reactions to his experiences and didn’t focus strongly on any one line. We see how the corruption, violence and general strife take their toll. I might have preferred a more personal tale from the point of view of a Salvadoran citizen, as it gets old to see movies that view the dealings in other countries only from the white man’s perspective. Despite this mildly imperialist attitude, I thought that Stone maintained a fairly interesting piece through much of the film.

Salvador differs from many of Stone’s flicks through its fairly unselfconscious use of humor. The movie begins with perversely funny sequences. Sure, Boyle’s life is on the skids, but his problems are presented in a goofy sad-sack manner that makes them entertaining. The semi-silliness is aided by loose performances from Woods and Belushi, both of whom make it hard to take any of the pain seriously.

Much of that tone continues once our protagonists get to El Salvador. Boyle’s a goofball who seems to be regarded sincerely by virtually no one, and his pathetic opportunistic attempts to ingratiate himself with anyone and everyone who might help him are comical to watch. However, though Woods makes the character a loser, we always sense greater depth to him, which is why his growth works when it occurs. Actually, I thought that some of Boyle’s self-improvement came a little too easily, but Woods still was able to make these scenes flow well.

Honestly, Woods is the greatest asset possessed by the film. He displays a hyperkinetic charm and desperation that match the character but he never lets Boyle become a joke. Ultimately, Woods is the glue that holds Salvador together, as his Oscar-nominated performance takes the movie to a higher level.

Ultimately, Salvador isn’t Oliver Stone’s best flick, but it seems surprisingly compelling since it was one of his earliest efforts. Of course, he’d go on to bigger things with his follow-up, as Platoon scored at the box office and garnered a slew of Oscars. Salvador netted some awards, but it was largely ignored by audiences and remains one of Stone’s more obscure works. That lack of fame shouldn’t connote a lack of quality, as Salvador offers a fairly dramatic and interesting experience.

The DVD:

Salvador appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although a mix of concerns affected the overall quality of the picture, it generally looked very good.

Sharpness seemed consistently fine. A smidgen of softness appeared during a few wider shots, but these examples were rare. For the vast majority of the movie, the image seemed quite crisp and detailed. Moiré effects weren’t an issue, but some occasional examples of jagged edges appeared.

Colors looked quite vivid and distinct. The movie featured a naturalistic palette for the most part, but the DVD nicely replicated these tones and made them seem bright and clear. I saw some vibrant reds and blues throughout the film, and some green candles witnessed in a dining room scene were very accurately depicted. Black levels also seemed deep and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick; the film’s low-light sequences appeared easily visible but didn’t come across as overly bright.

The only substantial problem I had with Salvador related to print flaws. The movie showed quite a few concerns that made it look less positive than it could. Light grain appeared at times, and a mix of grit, speckles, nicks, and a few small hairs also crept into the image. I also saw occasional examples of streaks and scratches, and there was a mildly flickering tone seen during shots in the ambassador’s office. I didn’t think these defects were overwhelming, and much of Salvador looked simply terrific. However, the preponderance of print issues lowered my rating to a “B”.

Many MGM DVDs remove the film’s original “burned-in” subtitles and replace them with player-generated text; for example, This Is Spinal Tap offered this kind of material. Many viewers hate these alterations, but MGM continue to make them, and Salvador features player-created subtitles for Spanish-spoken dialogue. Granted, this is better than the mistake MGM have made in other cases; for DVDs such as The Delta Force, they completely neglected to include any subtitles for non-English dialogue. Nonetheless, I wish they stop this and simply feature the material as originally shown on movie screens.

Salvador provided an inconsistent but generally positive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield offered a surprisingly broad spectrum of audio, but it lacked great definition. Music and effects often emanated from the front and rear speakers, but they failed to deliver very concise localization. As such, I heard various elements from the side and surround channels, but these stems seemed vaguely-placed. No sounds came from inappropriate locations, so it wasn’t a problem in that manner. Music showed mushy separation, and effects showed up in poorly-defined areas.

While the track wasn’t bad for its age, I felt that the mix lacked accuracy that would have made it more convincing. The level of activity seemed strong, but the absence of clearly-located sounds meant that the mix wasn’t as involving as it could have been. Still, for the age of the track, I thought it performed acceptably in this regard, and some decent panning meant that it became moderately engrossing at times.

Audio quality also was relatively positive but inconsistent. Dialogue appeared acceptably natural and intelligible, but some lines displayed mild signs of edginess. Effects functioned pretty well, as most of these aspects of track came across as decently clear and accurate; a little distortion affected some of the louder sequences, but most of the mix appeared clean and distinct. Music was fairly bright and vivid, and both effects and the score showed decent low-end at times, but I thought that bass response seemed to be a little boomy and vague; those elements were quite loud but they failed to deliver great depth. Ultimately, the mix for Salvador functioned pretty well for its age, but some concerns kept it from provided a truly terrific experience.

On this special edition release of Salvador, we get a solid mix of supplements, starting with a new documentary called “Into the Valley of Death”. Directed by Charles Kiselyak, this 62-minute and 50-second piece combines some film clips with contemporary interviews and archival footage. The latter aspects show both candid material from the set - including some deleted scenes and very early test recordings - and graphic images from El Salvador during the period depicted. As for the interviews, we hear from director Oliver Stone and actors James Woods and Jim Belushi to represent the filmmaking experience. In addition, we see Richard Boyle, the movie’s co-writer and the “real-life” basis for Woods, and former ambassador Robert E. White, the inspiration for Michael Murphy’s character.

To put it simply, this was a terrific documentary. We learn a lot about the history and early progression of the project from Stone and Boyle, and once the actual production starts, we get a great deal of fine information from Woods and Belushi as well. Events are told in a roughly chronological fashion, though the piece doesn’t slavishly follow that order. Nonetheless, it moves in a sensible manner and we get a good feel for the production, especially as related through anecdotes from Stone and Woods.

Many of these kinds of documentaries offer little more than banal happy talk, but that’s definitely not the case here. Both Stone and Woods seem to find it impossible to be anything other than candid, which means that we hear a lot of great stories. In addition, White adds a fine layer of factual information to the mix, as he neatly encapsulates many of the era’s issues. Ultimately, this was a consistently top-notch program that added immensely to my appreciation of the film.

Next up is a running audio commentary from Oliver Stone. Prior to this, I’d screened a whopping nine of these sorts of tracks from Stone, and most were quite good. While Salvador wasn’t the best of the batch, it still offered a solidly interesting experience. Although Stone went silent for moderate periods of time, he usually filled the commentary with his memories of the production and the era. The latter area was the most compelling emphasis, especially since I already learned so much about the shoot during the documentary. Instead, the commentary becomes useful just for Stone’s remembrances of history; I could recall some of the events depicted in Salvador, but it was good to get a more specific discussion of the facts upon which the film was based.

As I mentioned, a couple of deleted scenes appeared during the documentary. Those clips and more can be found in the official Deleted Scenes area. There we find eight different unused segments, all of which run between 65 seconds and five minutes, 20 seconds; that gave us a total of 26 minutes and 55 seconds worth of shots. Most of these were extended versions of already-included segments, so the amount of truly new footage doesn’t add up to the nearly 27 minutes listed. However, the padded shots were interesting, and a few completely new scenes appeared as well; for example, one excellent clip showed American consultants as they attempted to sculpt the public image of Major Max. Overall, I thought this was a nice complement of unused snippets.

A few additional minor elements round out the DVD. We find an On the Set Photo Gallery that provides 46 stillframe images. This was nothing special, as most of the shots simply replicate pieces from the movie; we don’t get to see anything candid. The final still showed the film’s poster. In addition, we get the movie’s theatrical trailer plus a four-page Collectible Booklet that offered some decent production notes.

In the end, I thought Salvador received positive treatment on DVD that brought it in line with the many other Oliver Stone special edition packages. The movie itself is one of Stone’s better works. It shows the rudiments of his style but it lacks the self-important bombast of many of his later movies, and a stellar performance from James Woods helps make the film consistently compelling. The DVD offers inconsistent but largely good picture and sound plus a fine complement of extras. Oliver Stone fans will be very pleased with this release, and others should give it a look to see an interesting element of his catalog.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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