Continuing on from our look at journalism in film, we narrow down the focus to war reporting, with Oliver Stone’s Salvador set during the El Salvadorian civil war, and Volker Schlöndorff’s look at Lebanese civil war reportage in Die Fälschung. Join us as we examine how the stress of the battlefield affects those assigned to report on it.
Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador sees a deadbeat, drunk, photo journalist, Richard Boyle (James Woods), travel to the Central American country of El Salvador to document the civil war taking place there between the right wing military government and a coalition of left wing guerrilla groups, another of those shameful wars by proxy between the USA and the USSR which tended simply to destroy nations.
Not that Boyle picks this destination because it is a story that needs to be told. No, it’s because he prefers Salvadorian nightlife to that of other warzones, and because young ladies of negotiable affection are particularly cheap there, as is living, and because he thinks he can make a few bucks as a stringer. With such noble pursuits in mind, Boyle travels south by car from San Francisco with his DJ friend Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi) accompanying him.
Despite witnessing a grisly scene within moments of entering the country, for much of the first hour of the film Boyle gets drunk, with occasional forays into sex with his Salvadorian girlfriend María (Mexican actress Elpidia Carrillo, who you may be familiar with from Predator), and only briefly going out to work to shoot photographs, seeming particularly disinterested when he does so. But as tensions increase in the country, and in particular in the capital of San Salvador, Boyle’s conscience begins to awaken, and he starts doing what a good journalist ought.
Things begin in earnest with the assassination in the middle of a mass of Archbishop Óscar Romero (José Carlos Ruiz, another Mexican – much of the film was shot in México – who gives the film’s standout performance, even in his small role). There follows an attack on female charity workers, and the danger to Boyle and his colleague John Cassady (John Savage) increases as they try to document the hostilities.
As the right wing military gain the upper hand, Boyle becomes persona non grata, and he must find a way to extricate himself, as well as Maria and her child, from the country and return to the US.
OK, so I need to get the elephant in the room out of the way here, because this is another film in which I find it a little difficult to separate the art from the artist, though in this case the failing is the filmmaker’s, and not my own. Oliver Stone is a left-wing idiothole with a history of believing in conspiracy theories and who has been accused of having behaved inappropriately towards women. James Woods is an inflammatory right-wing idiothole who has been accused of having behaved inappropriately towards women.
These should probably cancel each other out, but in fact it’s additive, and we have double the number of arseholes. In Woods case it doesn’t really matter, but in the case of writer and director Stone, it is, because while his politics were an obvious influence on the film in 1986, they colour it even more now, 30 years later, particularly after his trio of documentaries on Fidel Castro.
Certainly it can be difficult to distill the essence of a multi-year civil war down into a two hour film, but Stone eschews most of the shades of grey, and provides a simplified black and white take of the sort more typically favoured by mainstream US audiences, perhaps surprisingly so, given his considerably more nuanced approach in the vastly superior Platoon, which was released later that same year.
The film opens with a statement that it was based on actual events (which seems, at least, a little more nebulous than “Based on a true story”), but it appears (and it was criticised thusly at the time) that the film skews unfairly towards the left-wing guerrillas (typically portrayed more heroically, and accompanied by folk music – these are “the people”) when, in fact, there was plenty of despicable behaviour to go around on both sides. One scene does see him have a half-hearted stab at showing the guerrillas committing an atrocity, but you can tell his heart’s not really in it.
Salvador shares an issue I very much had with Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden, in that the main character, and by extension the audience, only becomes truly motivated when the wrongdoing directly affects US citizens; in this case the rape and murder of four US church workers. This is horrific, but we’ve been privy to many horrific scenes up until this point: summary executions, piles of burning bodies, Archbishop Óscar Romero’s execution (which, unlike in real life, the film’s Boyle was witness to), none of which seem to have prompted the photographer to step out of his hedonistic lassitude, unlike the murder of the nice white ladies from home.
There’s a none-too-subtle attempt to liken the actions of the US border guards to the venal officials in El Salvador, but that falls flat because there’s simply no equivalence. The US officials are doing their job – checking that entrants into the country are legally permitted to be there – in a perfectly acceptable manner. The rights and wrongs of María’s presence in the USA, and whether she should be given asylum etc. is something that happens afterwards, in the courts, something Stone no doubt knew well, and it feels rather cheap.
One of the strongest threads running through Salvador is the blaming of the US government for its harmful influencing and enabling of the violence (the film ends with the message that El Salvador continues to be one of the largest recipients of US military aid in the world), and that may very well be so, but the argument loses credibility because so much of the story as filmed betrays the director’s own politics.
I recall enjoying this a great deal more when I first watched it with Craig many, many years ago, but I’m considerably less enthusiastic now. I’d argue that it’s still worth watching, for historical interest, if for no other reason, because even at the time the civil war in El Salvador didn’t get the attention it merited, and it must necessarily be less well-known now. But it suffers from being too simplistic in its depiction of the participants (the sneering villains, the idealistic guerrillas, the ineffectual politician, the cigar-chewing, commie-hating military man) and for not trusting its audience to appreciate the complexities of the situation.
Die Fälschung of course being German for The Fälschung. It’s more commonly known in the English speaking world as Circle of Deceit, but more on that later.
Journalist Georg Laschen (Bruno Ganz) is at a strange point in his marriage. Well, probably. Being a German, it’s tough to know exactly what passes for normal in a relationship, but let’s say our introduction to him, initiating a spot of the ol’ in out with his wife in front of his bejawdropped child, is certainly a challenging one for conventional morality.
Amidst a tumult of arguments and make-up sex, Georg leaves to cover the on-going civil war in the stricken city of Beirut. Meeting up with his fellow reporters and photographer Hoffman (Jerzy Skolimowski) in the least bombed out hotel currently available, he sets about covering the various opportunities for human misery that what turned out to be a 15 year civil war can provide.
While all this is going on we unveil more of Georg’s character, and his largely cynical thoughts turn to the coverage of the war itself. While it seems that he’s more inclined to support one side over the other, continued exposure to both puts paid to any narrative of any side being the good guys.
The fighting largely takes place during the night, although Georg finds something to do during the day, reconnecting with Ariane Nassar (Hanna Schygulla), part of the now-closed German embassy staff that’s chosen to stay behind. They begin, or rather resume, an affair, with Georg starting to think that he could make a life with Ariane. Ariane, however, is more concerned with having a baby, and as her previous marriage did not provide them, she’s hopeful he can buy one from an orphanage.
It’s not the most joyous of films, naturally, what with all the death, cynicism and moral ambiguity. Indeed, while Georg does at least get out alive, his head’s no clearer than it was at the start of the film, and I can’t help but think that Georg’s fate after the credits roll is an early death at the bottom of a bottle.
This film must, I suppose, get a few brownie points for actually filming in Beiruit, slap bang in the middle of the war it’s set in – apparently in the “safer” areas of the city, although that’s very much a relative term. Top marks for dedication to the cast and crew, which produces some highly authentic feeling scenes as Georg experiences the conflict first hand – although he would be advised to play a few more cover-based third person shooter video games as training, as he’s a bit wander-aimlessly-through-live-fire-y, which I’m fairly sure is counter-indicated in war zone scenarios.
Director Volker Schlöndorff is certainly unflinching in his examinations, whether that’s of the horrendous results that conflict produces, or his lead character. Georg’s not a particularly likeable guy, and there’s little attempt made to excuse or explain his actions, or thoughts. It may be a glitch in translation, but there’s evidence that Georg’s trying to fool himself about his own character – in the space of a few sentences, he goes from saying how he must report the truth, to saying how he must sex it up to ensure that it sells newspapers. That may, perhaps, be some lost irony – my German’s not strong enough to distinguish, but Georg lying to himself – and perhaps the audience – about his character.
Which perhaps ties in to the original title . Circle of Deceit implies a journalist investigating some external deceit, and I suppose if you squint at it and apply the deceit as coming from Georg, that might work. But Die Fälschung seems much more fitting – the closest translation I can hit on is The Faker, or perhaps The Counterfeiter if you’re being all formal. That fits Georg much better, although, perhaps more through fake emotions than fake news.
It’s a bold move to give us so little background or information about what’s truly at the heat of Georg’s motivations and character, but one I’m not sure that pays off. It’s also not doing all that much to tell us about the war itself, leaving that mainly as an extended metaphor for Georg’s psyche knocking lumps out of itself.
Nominally we’re here to compare this to Salvador, and there’s certainly a through line there, both in the nature of the protagonists and the horrors of the events. But Salvador seems to want to wander between being a documentary of the situation as much as a character study, whereas Die Fälschung takes a much higher level view of the nature of war, and the nature of humanity. In that respect, it reminds me more of Entranced Earth than Salvador, albeit without the dollops of crazy that Entranced Earth brought to the table and rolled about in, while eating the tablecloth.
So, quite the morality play, then, but is it any good? Well, I guess? I’ve no real complaints with the acting, with Bruno Ganz putting in a great performance as an unlikable character. Of course, in general, being so focused on an unlikable character makes it quite hard to like the film, as so goes it with Die Fälschung. It’s one of those films that’s good, but in no way enjoyable, and so very hard to unabashedly recommend. So, come, child, feast on this misery and be nourished by your cinematic tears. Take it as a downer when there’s too much saccharine around.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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