Sunday, July 25, 2010
Pinches on Salt
Walking out of the theater, I had no intention of writing about Salt. But then I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s review at Capital. Now I can’t resist. Seitz calls the movie “the best pure action film to come out of Hollywood in a long time.” He puts its action scenes in the class of Die Hard. And he suggests that “there’s real intelligence in the writing, the directing and the performances.” I disagree on all counts. But that’s not why I feel compelled to write. Rather, I’m drawn in by Seitz’s suggestion that “inattentive critics” and “unimaginative viewers” might overlook many of Salt’s admirable qualities. Written by another critic, I might take those as fighting words, but not when they come from Matt, who many readers here know isn’t just a talented critic but also a responsible and ridiculously generous one. (I can’t think of anyone who has done more to support and encourage nonprofessional criticism, in all forms, than Seitz.) I don’t always agree with Seitz’s reviews, but I’ve read enough of his criticism to trust his motivations. And so where other critics might use words like “inattentive” and “unimaginative” to separate themselves from the pack, patting themselves on the back for their genius, I’m confident Matt is simply imploring audiences to look closer. But that’s the thing: Though, like Seitz, I went into Salt expecting it might be a “big, loud, incoherent, derivative action film without a single smart bone in its plasticized body,” I did look closely, I was attentive. That was the problem.
The closer I looked, the less Salt made any sense to me. Some of this is by design. As Seitz writes, “Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay keeps you guessing,” and Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt is “a (deliberate) blank-slate character whose real mission is to keep you wondering who she is and what she’s up to.” Damn straight. Indeed, the film’s principal pleasure is our inability to pin down the film’s heroine, or villain, or heroic villain, or whatever else Salt might seem to be from one scene to the next. Trouble is, Salt’s structure withholds key pieces of information from the audience and asks us to buy into its suspense anyway, and sometimes that’s dramatically problematic. It’s one thing to watch Salt running – and there’s a lot of running in this picture – with a mistaken understanding of what she’s running to or from. It’s another thing to watch her running and have no clue what she’s trying to achieve. Seitz argues that the film’s ambiguity creates excitement, and in some cases I’d agree. But there’s a fine line between engaging curiosity and maddening aimlessness. Too often I was on the wrong side of that line, not wondering, “Hmm, what is she up to?” so much as, “What’s her motivation?” And that question repeatedly led to this one: “Why do I care?”
Maybe this is an issue of subjectivity. Maybe my reaction and Matt’s demonstrate how two people can watch the same thing, essentially agree on what’s happening and have two entirely opposite takes on its effect. Or maybe Matt is correct and I wasn’t attentive enough and I missed something. So, in lieu of a traditional review, what follows are several questions I had while watching Salt. Individually, none of these questions spoils the movie. Collectively, they prevented me from participating in any of the film’s intended adrenaline rush. Beware: super duper spoilers ahead.
Section 1: The (Initial) Escape
The film’s biggest weakness is its lengthy beginning, precisely because it inspires so many questions that make it difficult to understand Salt or identify with her – making it difficult to know whether we’re cheering for her or against her, creating ambivalence instead of mystery. (Doubt will be used effectively later on, but there can be no switcheroo on Salt if we’re never given a clear idea of who she is in the first place.) In the beginning, Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Russian mastermind of the Cold War, shows up at a CIA field office in Washington, DC, and promptly announces that Evelyn Salt is a Russian spy. Soon after, Orlov overpowers and kills two CIA guys in an elevator and then walks out the front door of the CIA office and onto the street. Almost simultaneously, Salt, supposedly fearing for the safety of her husband, decides to escape the CIA office, too. This leads to the following questions:
* Why on earth is the CIA more concerned about catching Salt, who has a proven reputation of serving her country, than about looking for the guy they know to be a Russian Cold War bad guy who just killed two CIA agents?
* How is it that Orlov was able to wander out of the building in the first place, given its multiple security cameras and Star Wars-esque blast doors?
* Once Salt is located on a particular floor, why wouldn’t the guys in the control room seal the entire floor immediately, rather than closing each blast door each time Salt approaches a potential way out? (This suggests the CIA is inept, which lessens the thrill.)
* Once Salt escapes the building, how does the CIA not beat her to her apartment, where they know she’s heading? (See previous note on ineptness.)
* After twice pursuing Salt with weapons drawn (first at the CIA office, then at her apartment), and having apparently determined that Salt is a more dangerous fugitive than Orlov, why are the dozen-or-so CIA types who converge on Salt near the overpass so unwilling to fire their weapons?
* Why does Salt allow herself to be surrounded before she leaps off the overpass?
* Why does Angelina Jolie think that if she pumps her arms until her fists rise above her head that it will make her seem fast? Wait, that’s a different kind of question. Continuing …
* Most important of all: Knowing what we know at the time, why are we supposed to believe that the highly trained Salt thinks that the best way to protect her husband is to risk getting killed by breaking out of the CIA office, including manufacturing a weapon that she fires at her coworkers? Put another way, does her escape make sense as it’s happening?
Section 2: The Funeral
So everyone ends up in New York for the funeral of the U.S. Vice President, which will be attended by the U.S. President and also the Russian President. Inexplicably, the Russian President (1) arrives late and (2) will be delivering the eulogy (huh?), but never mind. It’s known that someone, perhaps even Salt, is going to attempt to assassinate the Russian Prez. Security is intense. As Salt begins infiltrating the church, we try to decide if she’s doing so to kill the president of Russia or to prevent him from being killed. This leads to the following questions:
* What does Salt achieve by shooting the cables attached to the billows that power the church’s mighty pipe organ, I mean other announcing her presence before she’s ready to spring her trap (trigger her explosive device), thus giving security a reason to converge on the one person rumored to be a target, thus jeopardizing her own clever scheme?
* Having said that, why doesn’t security converge on the Russian President?
* After the explosion, Salt is approached by the one U.S. agent who is absofuckinglutely sure she’s guilty: Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Peabody. As he approaches Salt through the cloud of debris he finds her with her gun raised in his direction as she stands above the Russian president, lying on a pile of rubble, stiff as a board at her feet, having apparently been shot. Tell me, if this isn’t enough of an excuse for Peabody to fire his weapon at Salt, what would it take? Am I supposed to believe that Peabody would risk his own life by not shooting at Salt and, conversely, that Salt would risk her own life by betting on Peabody not to shoot? And if Salt is so confident about Peabody, why is her gun pointed his direction in a threatening manner that might change is mind?
Section 3: The Reunion
Salt voluntarily goes into custody and then escapes … again. She snatches a Ruskie-esque fur hat (wink, wink) and then walks to a metal scrap yard where Orlav is hanging out watching CNN in HD. This leads to the following questions:
* Do you think Orlav has Comcast or Verizon Fios? Only kidding. More importantly …
* Wait, so Salt and Orlav definitely know each other and, more than that, she knows where he hangs out and he knows that she got married? So, riddle me this: What genius devised the plan in which Orlav would voluntarily walk into a CIA office, implicate Russia’s top secret agent (who is on his side!) thus risking her life and his in order to … what … spring her into action? If Orlav needed to test Salt’s loyalty, couldn’t he have kidnapped her husband and then shot him while she watched? Oh, wait! He does that anyway!
Section 4: The White House
Blah, blah, blah, Salt ends up at the White House. We figure the U.S. President is in danger, but who knows. There’s something about a bunker and Salt needing to be there. After a whole bunch of fighting and shooting, Salt and Liev Schreiber’s Ted remain upright, both of them separated by some sturdy bulletproof glass. One might wonder why bulletproof glass would be necessary several stories underneath the White House in the President’s bunker, because if an enemy ever gets inside the bunker’s tank-heavy front door, it stands to reason that the President is pretty much screwed, but I digress. Bodies lying around them, Salt and Ted gaze into one another’s eyes. This leads to the following questions:
* Am I the only one who snickered imagining how this scene would have played if Tom Cruise had accepted the role of Salt as originally planned? Yeah, yeah, Ted was probably a Tess in the Tom Cruise version. Still, I couldn’t help but picture Cruise and Schreiber staring into one another’s eyes as Gustavo Santaolalla’s Brokeback Mountain score strummed in the background. Back to the important questions …
* Salt eventually prevents nuclear war by pulling the plug on the nuke computer (seriously). Didn’t Frank Drebin do that once? Simple but effective. So, what was Salt trying to do about 10 seconds earlier, when she fought off Ted momentarily and actually sat down at the computer as if to type. Was she trying to quit the missile-launch program with a CRTL-ALT-DELETE command or was she going to update her relationship status on Facebook?
As I said at the outset: Individually, none of the above questions prevented me from enjoying Salt. I’d also like to point out that nowhere above do I complain about some of the film’s far-out action scenes, including several leaps by Salt onto moving vehicles. I can roll with that. As Seitz says in his review, quoting a friend, the action scenes achieve “Maximum Ludicrousity,” and that can be fun. That’s why I’m not put off by the numerous scenes in which Jolie's Salt kicks ass in hand-to-hand combat, however I am baffled that Seitz first compares Salt to James Bond, Jason Bourne, or “those stony-faced ass-kickers that Steven Seagal used to play,” and then argues that Salt isn’t “one of those condescending faux-feminist action movies in which a tiny woman is depicted as the physical equal of a huge man.” (I mean, at one point Salt knocks a guy down just by throwing a gun at him.) And I sure don’t know how Stephanie Zacharek calls Salt free of “choppy, rapid-fire cutting.” (Compared to the Bourne extreme, sure. Otherwise …) But those quibbles are beside the point.
If it isn’t clear already, Seitz’s praise for Salt, while extreme, is also heavily (and necessarily) qualified. If you haven’t yet, go read his full review. Then someone please tell me if I was being too attentive (is that possible?) or not attentive enough. Compared to the mindfuck that is Inception, Salt is ridiculously simple, yet all throughout I found myself thinking, “I don’t get it.”