Monday, February 7, 2011

Salt Movie Review: That Old Cold War Feeling

The Cold War fed the subject matter of action films, thrillers, and their sub-genre of international intrigue for decades. The James Bond series, the Jack Ryan films, and countless others all have the standoff between the USA and the Soviet Union to thank for their storylines. When tensions eased between the Eastern Bloc and the West, Hollywood lost fodder for their go-to villains. In the wake of 9/11 and the global War on Terror we might have thought that Arabs would supplant the Communists as Global Enemy Number 1. In some sense they have, but with only a handful of examples, it seems an elevated sense of political correctness has prevented it.

So here we have Salt, an action movie directed by Phillip Noyce (who not so incidentally directed two of those Jack Ryan pictures) that plays on the residual effects of Cold War paranoia, and in so doing dodges the more contemporary and important issue of Muslim extremism. The only reference in the film to Muslims is in the villainous plot to launch American nuclear weapons on Tehran and Mecca, setting off a violent confrontation between the Middle East and the US out of which Russia hopes to rise from the ashes as the new dominant force in global politics.

On second thought, perhaps political correctness has nothing to do with it. It could be something more primal, like the desire to have a rational enemy whom we could count on to make decisions that are logical and not fanatical. The Soviet Union and the USA were deadlocked in a power struggle to maintain economic hegemony over their respective dominions. Muslim extremism has no such grand aspirations. How does a government logically face down enemies who are willing to blow themselves up to achieve their ends? With that in mind, Salt is a light-hearted and naïve throwback to a bygone era.

The premise is that the Soviet Union once installed sleeper agents, well versed in American patriotism and culture, but also in Soviet ideology and fervor, from childhood, who must insinuate themselves into high level positions waiting for the moment they get the go-ahead to orchestrate their attack, known in the intelligence community as Day X (obviously taking a note from James Cameron’s rules for screenwriting if you remember the precious substance Unobtainium in Avatar). This is the story told by Orlov, a Russian spy who claims that Lee Harvey Oswald was the first success that led to the creation of the full program. If this sounds a little bit like The Manchurian Candidate it’s not just because Salt also stars Liev Schreiber, who was the title character in the remake of the John Frankenheimer classic. But instead of just one, Salt has a dozen or so.

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who is identified by Orlov as a sleeper whose mission will be to assassinate the Russian president during his eulogy at the funeral of the American Vice President. After a ridiculous chase and getaway action sequence that approaches Matrix-like levels of absurdity without the benefit of a computer generated world as plausible explanation, Salt makes her way to New York City, where she’s able to scrap together a Mission: Impossible style plan with about 24 hours of planning time. And I have to ask, if there were a credible threat against a foreign leader on American soil, wouldn’t law enforcement do a little more than simply beef up the Secret Service detail?

Ted Winter (Schreiber), Salt’s supervisor and close confidant, is Salt’s champion defender in the face of Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the counter intelligence agent looking to hold Salt after the revelation of her possible involvement in the plot. He’s been the man who has stood by her, ushered her through the ropes of the Agency, assisted in her release from a North Korean prison that serves as the film’s prologue, and ultimately the man who introduced Salt to her husband, Mike Krause (August Diehl). Knowing that an operative’s entire alternate life is the first thing to be extinguished when cover is blown, Mike’s fate is what most drives Salt to evade capture.

Watching Jolie, I was completely convinced of her concern for her husband and also occasionally second guessing her true motives. This is despite the plot machinations being paper thin, the result of very shoddy work by screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, who did an equally lousy job with The Recruit, but crafted an interesting and inventive screenplay for the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair.

Peppered throughout the film are various flashback scenes showing the relationship between Salt and Mike. They carry a tone that is far too sentimental. Noyce is obviously trying to place the marriage as the central relationship, which is the key for explaining Salt’s actions, but he never seems to hit the right note. Perhaps this is the result of the sappy piano-heavy score by James Newton Howard.

Some of the details venture beyond the implausible to the utterly laughable. The entire Soviet program is predicated on their agents’ abilities to implant themselves exactly where necessary to carry out the mission – in the case of Evelyn Salt, as a CIA agent assigned to Russia. How they could possibly be assured of such a course in life from childhood is beyond comprehension.

This is the kind of nonsense that just barely passed muster while the Cold War was still hot. Modern day paranoia would suggest that the sleeper agent plot may be carried out by Muslim extremists, which might have made a marginally more interesting, if less politically correct, movie.


  1. Salt is hero's journey badly done; but all these movies use it - see

  2. Ugh, I'll leave the above comment where it is because there is some cinematic value to the link provided, but why can't people leave comments on my blog without selling something? Nearly all the comments I get (and there have only been a handful) link to something being sold.

  3. Very nicely written :-)

  4. I watched this movie last night for the first time and was left confused by the triple-agent aspect, in addition to the reasons you mention. It would have been highly more effective to make it seem a little more realistic. (How many narrow escapes did you count?)