Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
In our first three episodes this season on revolutions and revolutionaries we took on the big one – the American Revolution. And boy, there are a lot of lies agreed upon to choose from, right? So we settled on the inevitable revolution, the inherent purity and wisdom of the Founding Fathers who, it was told, were the primary movers of events, and finally, that the war was waged between idealistic freedom fighters and corrupt occupiers – good guys vs. bad guys, clearly defined.
Episodes four and five are about a popular genre of film in the early 1980s that combine heroic journalism with “third world” revolutions, to use the parlance of the time. When we began scrolling through films to discuss we noticed that a bunch of these journalist movies came out during Ronald Reagan’s first term. As we’ll discuss later, this is both a reflection of his aggressive, militaristic foreign policy vis a vis the Third World and America’s willingness in the early 1980s to finally look back on the Vietnam War with a critical eye.
If you followed us in season one we did an episode about journalism and 9/11 called The Fourth Estate Under Siege. We showed how the fourth estate needed a bit of rebranding after getting beat up for dropping the ball on Iraq, often submitting to pressure from the Bush administration. In films like Spotlight, Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Post, Hollywood icons like Steven Spielberg and George Clooney reassured us the press could be honorable watch dogs after all.
Here, moviemakers use journalism as a tool to explain complex politics in far off lands to a Western audience. Maybe audiences wouldn’t have seen them at all if these stories weren’t told through the eyes of white protagonists. But the complex histories of revolutions in countries caught in the middle of the bipolar Cold World order are both made clear and over-simplified, as a result. In this episode we’re looking at two films about revolutions in Central America. In the next episode, we’ll travel to Asia for further variations on the theme.
Oliver Stone’s Salvador was released in 1986, the same year as Platoon if you can believe it. You may remember we talked about two less than stellar Stone films in season one – Alexander and World Trade Center – and we felt bad about that, so we thought it would be good to dive into some classic Stone. The other film is Under Fire, released in 1983 and directed by action genre specialist Roger Spottiswoode. Neither movie is spectacular, but they are both very revealing about the early 1980s zeitgeist surrounding these revolutions and romantic portraits of journalists. And they both contain strong performances by actors who have gone off the rails in the years since, or who never got their due and deserve to be noticed.
What are our lies agreed upon for this theme of “covering the revolution”?
The first lie might be that journalists are indeed heroic, driven by a quest for the truth.
A second lie – related to the first – is that the readership back home cares what foreign correspondents report and so the government is held accountable for their foreign policy actions.
There is a third set of lies specific to this episode on these Central American revolutions worth mentioning because it takes us back to our first topic this season – our very own revolution.
The United States was founded in revolution and so one of our myths about our country is that it supports the underdog around the world. After all, the United States is the leading democratic nation and, therefore, it stands to reason that it supports democratic movements over autocratic forces.
Turns out that isn’t the case…and that Oliver Stone is kinda pissed off about it.
Salvador is written and directed by Oliver Stone, although he shares authorship with the subject of the film – journalist Richard Boyle, whose crazy life and antics on screen seem more like just a day in the life of James Woods than a real life story, but amazingly enough, this is a true story. What do we say about James Woods? He’s kind of infamous now, a caricature, but he was always one of Stone’s favorite actors and he is … compelling to watch? He might even be great, but I can’t tell.
Jim Belushi plays a hapless San Francisco DJ named Dr. Rock, another real person, believe it or not, who gets taken along for the ride to El Salvador. The film is at times the craziest, scariest, most bizarre road trip ever. Other notable actors include the ubiquitous Michale Murphy, who shows up a lot in 80s political dramas, John Savage from The Deer Hunter, and the great Mexican actress Elpidia Carillo.
Salvador begins with a grainy black and white rendition of actual film footage and an explanation that the events take place between 1980 and 81. The footage is of the massacre of 50 or so demonstrators in January 1980, by the new military dictatorship that overthrew the junta that, in turn, had deposed the democratically elected, left-leaning government in 1979.
Between the editing and score, I got the sense Stone was evoking The Battle of Algiers, maybe the ultimate template for all films about about post-colonial revolutions. A note also says the characters are fictionalized. I hope for Boyle’s sake that applies to him too! We will do a more thorough job of breaking down the historical context of Salvador a little later. Right now we just want to give you the plot.
We are first introduced to a really down and out Richard Boyle, facing eviction, divorce, and few opportunities to ply his trade as a journalist specializing in wars, revolution, and genocide. He’s chaotic, insufferable, a terrible husband and father, completely irresponsible, but we get the sense he knows his business. With stints covering the IRA, Cambodia, Afghanistan, it seems El Salvador is next. Boyle grabs his sad sack buddy Dr. Rock and literally drive from San Francisco to Central America hoping to make himself relevant again.
As they get closer to San Salvador, the sense of unease and casual violence increases. Boyle had been there a year earlier, when things were much quieter. This time, though, the dynamic duo barely avoid getting arrested and shot along with the dozens of young students they see piled up along the road on their way to the capital. And when Boyle reconnects with an old flame, Maria, whose son greets Boyle with great familiarity, we find out her husband has been ‘disappeared’ by the regime.
Boyle tries to settle in to the country and the circumstances he left the year earlier but Boyle he can’t help but dig deeper into the powder keg, which is being propped up with US money because of renewed fears of a domino effect in Central America – Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador…next stop San Diego! Boyle reconnects with photo journalist John Cassady, played by John Savage, and stumbles across grisly scenes of mass execution and burial. John sort of foretells his own fate when he tells Boyle: “You got to get close to get the truth. You get too close you die.”
Boyle is everywhere – speaking to human rights groups, priests and nuns, left-wing union leaders and politicians, and most instructive for him and us the audience, a group of Reaganite military and diplomatic advisers in the embassy. Spinning crazy tales about Castro pouring arms into the region and sending tanks to the US border, these guys are ignoring the Carter appointed ambassador, played by Michael Murphy. This is Oliver Stone’s chance to document what by 1986 was common knowledge – the US funded and supported death squads in El Salvador under the guise of anti-communism.
Boyle begins to see the unholy alliance between US support and a right-wing political candidate nicknamed Mad Max, whose party is responsible for assassinating the outspoken Archbishop Oscar Romero, who of course was a real historical figure and a purveyor of liberation theology. We see Romero in action, bitterly criticizing the government violence and US inaction in his country.
The church really is an enemy of the corrupt military dictatorship here. As a result, nuns and missionary aid workers were also targeted and, in December 1980, 3 nuns from Western nations are brutally raped and murdered by pro-government forces. It really happened but it is depicted in a gratuitous and utterly unempathetic way.
While the ambassador is poised to pull the plug on US aid for El Salvador after these brutal murders, the pro-Reagan faction, which is now in power because it’s 1981, turn the faucets back on big time.
As things disintegrate and Boyle is increasingly targeted as a fly in the ointment, he exchanges information for a possible exit plan for Maria and her family. Invited to meet with the rebel leader Marti, Boyle passes along some photos to the embassy guys that prove meaningless. The dialogue in this scene is Stone at his best, Boyle’s no-nonsense condemnation of US policy:
Whatever mistakes we do down here, the alternative is 10 times worse.” How many times has that been uttered behind US embassies during the Cold War?
With the Carter appointee gone, US troops, who are there in secret, and weapons come flowing in and Boyle is desperate to escape with Maria. Poor John Cassady gets his iconic shot in a battle, but is killed himself. Boyle manages to smuggle Maria and her surviving son to the US, but their bus is boarded and Maria is discovered. It’s a different experience watching this in 2021 after the misery of the Trump years, casually ejecting the most vulnerable to a terrible fate. The film ends with a note explaining Boyle is still searching for Maria, who was reportedly in a Guatemalan refugee camp. And yes, thankfully, Dr. Rock made it back safely.
Under Fire came out in 1983. It’s directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who did a lot of popular action drama movies like 48 Hours, Shoot to Kill, and the Pierce Brosnan James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. It was written by Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton. Shelton wrote a lot of sports movies, including the brilliant Bull Durham, as well as White Men Can’t Jump, and others. With a pedigree like that you can see that this movie is meant to be a “good story”, not a fiery political rant. Nevertheless, it is filmed much closer to the period of upheaval in Nicaragua that it depicts, and hinges on some pretty grim and cynical plot points. So the fact that it’s a first film for both Spotiswoode and Shelton, suggests that they might have been uncertain yet where their artistic voice would land.
The cast is a great example of who’s who in the early 1980s. You have Gene Hackman as Alex Grazier, a popular TV reporter with aspirations to be an anchor, Nick Nolte as Russell Price, a photojournalist who comes across as Boyle light, and the great Joanna Cassidy as Claire – typical for the time, her character isn’t even given a last name.
This love triangle is dropped right in the middle of Nicaragua in 1979 and a lot of the time the plot can’t decide if we are supposed to care more about their love lives or the collapse of the Somoza regime. There are some other great actors passing through, including Ed Harris as a creepy mercenary named Oates, Richard Masur, who was everywhere in the 80s, as a slimy political consultant working for Somoza, and the great French actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, known for his work in such classics as Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist. Trintignant’s French insouciance is put to great use here as Marcel Jazy, a spy who does Somoza’s dirty work.
The film begins with an explanatory note about Somoza’s long and corrupt reign coming to an end, but our first action involving the trio of characters takes place in Chad. Like all the movies in our two episodes on journalism and revolution, reporters are sometimes as mercenary as crazy Ed Harris, constantly chasing action and tragedy to get the right picture, sound byte, click bait for lack of a better phrase. Alex, Russel and Claire are indifferent to where they are, its about being first.
Once they relocate to the next breaking war in Nicaragua, Claire has a great line, ““You’re going to love this war. Good guys, bad guys, and cheap shrimp.” Its the jaded worldview of Western reporters who can drop in and out of hot zones and never get too close to the misery.
As they travel across the country Russel and Claire do get a sense of the rebels, who strangely enough are never identified as Sandanistas and the mythical commander, someone named Rafael, kind of looks like Daniel Ortega but it’s not him. However, Somoza is a character in the film and is cartoonishly stupid and vain, played by Rene Enriquez, who people of a certain age will instantly recognize as Ray Calletano from Hill Street Blues. There’s a lot of violence, government killings, and you guessed it, Ed Harris killing anyone and everyone.
The most dramatic moment involves the murder of Alex at the hands of government troops, who then immediately blame the killing on leftist rebels. This is actually based on a real incident – the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by Nicaraguan National Guard troops in June 1979. Like the film, the shooting was caught on film and marked the end of the Carter administration’s relationship with Somoza, whose regime fell just a month later.
At one point, Russel breaks his loosely held journalistic ethical codes and agrees to stage a photo of Rafael still alive in hopes of preventing further violence. He takes sides with the rebels by doing this. And so, at the end of film, Russel and Claire celebrate along with everyone else in Managua, as if they were part of the revolution. Meanwhile, Ed Harris, who shot dozens of leftists, is also enjoying the celebration, drinking a cube libre like nothing happened.
I love 80s trailers and the one for Under Fire doesn’t disappoint. Let’s play it and enjoy the deep voiced announcer.
You tell from the voiceover the film is an adventure/love story first.
So, let’s revisit our lies agreed upon for this episode and dig deeper into the very specific historical context of these two films.
The first lie is about the hero-journalist, almost always a male with a drinking problem but a good soul beneath it all. Their work actually MEANS something, don’t you know.
The second lie is that the reporters’ audience, whether in print or TV, actually care and react, pressuring governments (who supposedly also care) to do the right thing because of investigative journalism.
The third is actually two lies about the Central American revolutions depicted in Salvador and Under Fire. Specifically, the US role in both causing them and making them worse.
The United States was founded in revolution and supports the underdog around the world
The United States is the leading democratic nation and, therefore, supports democratic movements over autocratic forces
Let’s take the last one first since the ins and outs of these revolutions are kind of confusing, even if you paid attention to them at the time.
The Reagan Administration came to Washington determined to combat communism—especially in Latin America. Reagan and his advisers focused in particular on El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Secretary of State Alexander Haig decided to make El Salvador a “test case” of his foreign policy, basically backing the right wing military junta in its brutal suppression of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. Boyle in Salvador goes back and forth between them. Conflicts between the White House and the State Department and with the Congress, however, frustrated the Administration’s bold plans. While Haig fought for a significant increase in military assistance to El Salvador, Congress made certification of progress on human rights a quid pro quo. The two branches of government clashed regularly over assistance and certification. You see the beginning of this dynamic in Salvador, when it was still technically Carter’s foreign policy.
The setting for Under Fire is the Nicaraguan Revolution, which actually spanned decades. The rising opposition to Somoza in the 1960s and 70s was led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which finally ousted Somoza in a civil war beginning in the countryside in 1978 and culminating in capturing the capital in 1979. The Sandinistas immediately faced rebels of their own with the US backed Contras. Tens of thousands died as both the US and Soviet Union poured money into the region until 1990, when a truce ended the conflict. Daniel Ortega is still holding on to power and it seems he’s putting off some Somoza vibes of his own. Much like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, sadly the freedom fighter becomes the dictator.
In April of 1983, Ronald Reagan asked to speak to a joint session of Congress about Central America, specifically on El Salvador and Nicaragua, the settings for our films this week. It’s all about grand strategy here, and pay attention to his Nazi reference. Always lean on Nazis when you want to scare people into submission.
In the grand scheme of things in this global cold war, should you really care about death squads and dead leftist students or peasants or indigenous peoples? Reagan was hoping the answer was No. and you won’t here much rhetoric on safeguarding democracy in central america and there’s no scarier word in US foreign policy than “revolution.” When I listen to Reagan it’s clear Oliver Stone was used the US embassy goons in Salvador to embody these paranoid delusions at the heart of early Reagan era foreign policy.
We came across a 2011 panel discussion with Oliver Stone and James Woods revisiting Salvador at a Lincoln Center screening and that scene came up. It’s pretty interesting to get their take on it. Let’s listen
The whole program is pretty wild, as you might imagine with those two. The making of the movie was as crazy as what’s on screen. But, Stone says Salvador was when he found his voice in some ways, especially with that scene.
Now’s a good time to open things up and discuss what connects not just these two movies, but our films next week – The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields – and that is the culture of journalism in this late Cold War era. Richard Boyle and the gang of three in Under Fire are prototypical egotistical, difficult, single-minded reporters who take on the big, bad, corrupt US government and score moral victories. They got the story, showed some personal growth, and shed some of their angelic light on the plight of the sad foreign people usually ignored by the West. Yay journalists!
There are some great quotes in Under Fire that get to a more cynical look at this narrative. Russell Price is at one point sharing a cell with a priest, who asks him “what side are you on?” Russell insists “I don’t take sides, I take pictures.” By the end of the film that perspective is unsustainable. Alex is killed and Somoza’s goons are set loose on all reporters. When Claire breaks down after hearing about Alex’s death in a news story, a rebel nurse surrounded by dead bodies brings her down to Earth: “50,000 Nicaraguans died. And now one Yankee. Perhaps we should have killed an American journalist 50 years ago.”
One constant in these reporters-covering-revolutions films is the idea they are at heart, mercenaries. They don’t come in country caring about it. As crazy Ed Harris snipes to Russel, “I get paid the same way you do.” Even the rebels in Under Fire know what to expect from reporters and manipulate the same way Somoza does. A translator who is actually a rebel gets Alex, Claire and Russel to do the rebels’ bidding, telling them “It’s a good story. You’ll be more famous.”
When we take a hard look at lie 1 – the hero-journalist BS – it tells us a lot about what audiences believed about the fourth estate in the early 1980s. Now? I think the rose colored glasses are off and most of us would just like to have real journalism every now and then. No one needs to be heroic, just truthful. Maybe that’s where the heroism lies.
Lie 2 is harder to get at in these two films. Why does it matter? Did Richard Boyle change anything with his reporting, or John’s photograph that got him killed? What about our three lovers in Under Fire? They try to make a connection between Alex’s murder and Carter suspending aid to Somoza, and we noted the real story behind that earlier, but Reagan restored that aid times a thousand.
The way to address Lie 2 is to put the films into their historical moment. Because then we can see how little changes between Nicaragua and El Salvador, and how little changes between El Salvador and all of the illegal interventions (or intentional lack of intervention) that have happened since, guided purely by US interest, not ideals. Our films this week cover the beginnings of things – 1979 to 81 between the two – but we know things escalated as Reagan breathed new life into covert operations after about 15 years of dormancy. From mining the Managua harbor, funding death squads in El Salvador, to the piece de resistance – the Iran-Contra Affair.
Here’s a 30 year retrospective of the Iran Contra affair with ABC journalist Jon Martin. It’s a reminder of what was at stake and the linkage between these two countries.
What about the “locals” for lack of a better word? How do these films portray the people of El Salvador, Nicaragua? The reporter’s gaze is always white, male, privileged, and exploitative whether they mean to or not. These guys, and they are 90% guys, let’s be frank, use the locals, screw them, screw them over, and treat them like errant children.