Times Arts Editor

Movie heroes are meant to look and act and talk like, well, movie heroes.

They’re entitled to an eccentricity or two, like drawing doodles or speaking in monosyllables or singing off-key. But you’re not supposed to need a footnote to tell you which one you’re rooting for.

The initial shock and the final reverberating strength of Oliver Stone’s “Salvador,” which Michael Wilmington reviewed enthusiastically in these pages on Thursday, is that its protagonist appears before us as a deadbeat slob whom any one of yesterday’s heroes would stare off the sidewalk.

He’s a fictionalized version of the real-life San Francisco counter-culture journalist Richard Boyle, based on a memoir Boyle wrote. But it’s hard to imagine where this character’s stuff ever ran. He stands in relation to Ernie Pyle, say, or even Hildy Johnson of “The Front Page,” as a passport photographer in relation to Robert Capa.


It’s not that he tries to distance himself from the full horrors of war to preserve his sanity and keep going, as a surgeon must; the movie Boyle feeds on war and seeks it out to salvage his sagging fortunes. He is fleeing to El Salvador pursued by debts, traffic tickets, zero prospects, the unwashed aura of personal failure.

The wonder, and it approaches the astonishing, is that James Woods, creating this character, preserves trace elements of vulnerability and compassion in him even at the beginning, when he seems like nothing more than a con man trying to talk himself back into self-confidence and needing to convince the world along with him.

Those hints of a complexity of character--the conniving survivor coexisting with a capacity for loving concern--are absolutely essential to the intentions of “Salvador,” which must take its audience along with its protagonist on a journey of horrifying discovery.

I think, as Wilmington did, that Woods’ performance, the latest in his succession of intense and convincing roles, is the finest work he has yet done. The fast-talking bravado, the sense of a cornered animal lurking beneath the smeary charm, leads the audience (or pushes it) toward contempt if not revulsion.


Then his confrontation with the terrors and tragedies of the civil war, including chilling reenactments of the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the murder of four women religious, pushes Boyle the other way. He begins to sound off as imprudently as he’s done everything else in his life, and the passion of his protest to some of the U.S. brass is the more compelling because it is an outburst, not a doctrinaire sermon to the already convinced in the audience.

There’s not much Boyle can do but he tries to do what he can for a woman he loves and, having taken the audience near to an uneasy contempt at the outset, he becomes a man of courage and honor (life size, not larger than life; no incredible heroics) and the contempt changes to admiration and, I think, a profound sympathy.

Actors, stage actors particularly, speak of an arc of character: that parabola of change that they hope to show in the portrayal between curtain up and curtain down. It is not easy to remember a more dramatic curve of change than Woods’ in “Salvador.”

The trouble with most films of advocacy is that they are so heavy-handed (on either the right or left wing) that they persuade only the previously certain.


Stone’s “Salvador” is unquestionably a film of advocacy, yet it really is more properly a film of discovery, whose intent is to cast grave doubts on the wisdom and the efficacy of the deepening U. S. involvement in Central America.

There is a kind of painful balance in the film that in effect really says, “A pity on both your houses.” Its message, I should think, is not that we’re betting on the wrong team but that we shouldn’t be in the game at all.

Kurtz’s dying line in “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now” is appropriate here. The horror, the horror is shown to be likely to escalate, one tyranny sure to beget an equal and opposite tyranny. The final tribute to “Salvador” may well be that it will raise equal and opposite hackles in the left and right hemispheres of American persuasion.

But if it is a film with something to say, “Salvador” is also a thrilling movie-movie (a test not many films of advocacy pass). It is fast, eventful, varied, exciting (the battle scenes are concise but amazing), passionate, often funny, suspenseful and, in the end, potently affecting.


And, not least, it seems to have been made for around $4 million, unbelievable in a day when the average cost of a major studio production has shot beyond $16 million. There is a lesson in this that has nothing to do with Central America, but that can be read as the handwriting on the screen if anyone cares to read it.