BACK TO THE FUTURE: SALT (2010)
Having taken aboard a surplus of estrogen after Eat Pray Love (2010), I felt a desperate need for a dash of testosterone. I rushed out to get some Salt (2010) and feel much more balanced now. Thank you, Angelina Jolie. It is obvious that this film was originally intended for a male lead, Tom Cruise, and was only slightly altered for a woman. Jolie, a very tough lady, makes a very credible action star. The plot, the masochistic and persecuted wronged man theme, is one typically used for male protagonists, who, of course, are always vindicated in the end. This tried and true storyline is deeply psychological in that it satisfies the lingering male childhood traumas of being bullied in school. The adolescent male yearns to be the hero in his fantasies and the victim-vindication dream remains powerful, well into adulthood.
Changing the protagonist from a male to a female had interesting consequences. When a woman is being prosecuted, in female-based dramas, it is usually by someone in her close circle, such as her husband. She has to be isolated for the purposes of the plot, and she cannot have friends or family, or community support systems. This isolation is necessary, because she must have no place to turn but to the Next Man, her new love interest. Women’s films are consumed with “creating the couple,” to borrow the term from a book of the same name by film critic, Virginia Wexman. However, in this film, the husband of Evelyn Salt is kidnapped and killed, eliminating him from the couple equation. I have no information as to just how many changes were made in the script by Kurt Wimmer to accommodate a woman in the lead, but killing off the spouse fits into the narrative line for a male protagonist. A dead wife sets the male lead free and allows the men in the theater to enter into the fantasy of freedom and the women in the audience to desire the hero. The dead wife is also a frequent motive for revenge of the husband.
However, once the husband is dead, then the villain becomes obvious, because Liev Schreiber, the other big star, does not try to save Salt. From the start, the audience, familiar with the female plot line, realizes that he is the villain because he sides with the boys in the Agency. Evelyn Salt, Russian mole, was turned into a loyal American by love—now that is a female specific story line. Furthermore, the death of “Mike Krause” (August Diehl), her spider scientist husband, gives Salt the motivation for revenge against those who executed him before her eyes. Except for the slight chin tremble when her husband is shot, Salt is as stoic and as action oriented as any man. The bulk of the film is all run and gun, impossible leaps and falls, crazy car chases, paralytic spider venom, and a rudely interrupted funeral. For the most part, it is Jolie who keeps this familiar “Bourne” formula (except maybe for the spider) fresh and compelling. Like Jason Bourne, there is nothing she cannot do—she can run, climb walls, hop down an elevator shaft, shoot and kick and punch, and she’s nice to dogs.
What makes the formulaic film interesting is that, Bourne special effects aside, this movie is totally retrograde. If you shake and stir the film, add in the spider, suddenly the plot morphs into something rather like James Bond. The evil Russian villain escapes with a Rosa Klebb move from From Russia with Love (1963). Like Rosa, he has sharp knives that dart out of his shoe tips and he stabs his guards and flees. The longing of the Cold War is palatable in Salt. The Evil Empire can strike again, thanks to many, many mole children who have been planted, like little seedlings, here and there, in key positions in the American government like Gregory Peck’s Boys From Brazil (1978). Of course, the “boys from Brazil” were new little Nazis and there is another nod to Nazi films in the idea of faux American operatives. The 1965 film, 36 Hours starred James Garner as an American soldier who had knowledge of the Normandy Invasion and was put in fake American hospital to induce him to reveal the “secrets” to a (Nazi) psychiatrist. One could go on in this vein and find even more recycled plots but all the elements have one thing in common—there is a major identifiable enemy who is “like us.”
By the end of Salt, nuclear war is imminent and the countdown is on. What a relief! Symmetrical warfare. Real weapons, no more stupid cowardly car bombs. We can nuke each other again! The Russian President was apparently assassinated by Salt and the Russians are angry. Without hesitation, the President (now white and tall and young—very Sixties) does not hesitate to launch a nuclear strike and the countdown begins. The film combines the current Republican talking point about “Terror Babies,” who will infiltrate the country and blow us up in some unknown future, with the joys of having an enemy that stays in one place (Russia) and doesn’t move to Yemen, and knows how to play the game, fair and square. All of this Cold War nostalgia is too good to waste. We know there are more Salt movies to come because “Evelyn” could easily be declared innocent once the President wakes up and explains that it was the other bad guy who tried to kill him. But remember, it took Jason Bourne three films to sort out his problems.
Salt will return. The last scenes show that Salt, who has been arrested for many crimes—-all done for her country, America—-has convinced Agent Peabody (the indispensible Chiwetel Ejiofor) that she is the Good Girl (that didn’t translate well from Good Guy, but that is our language—gender challenged). She warns him that there are many more Russian moles out there, “Far more than you and I can take care of,” she says. Peabody allows her to escape. Salt jumps out of a helicopter and swims, a long, long way, to shore and freedom. Is there anything this girl cannot do? Hooray! The Russian Bear is out of Hibernation. The Vindication Fantasy is complete and now we need to get to the Revenge Fantasy. Sequel, anyone?
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger
Tags: 36 Hours, Angelina Jolie, August Dieh, Boys from Brazil, Chiwetel Ejiofo, Cold War films, Eat Pray Love, Gregory Peck, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Kurt Wimmer, Liev Schreiber, The Bourne Identity, Tom Cruise, Virginia Wexman