Winning the Cold War and looking fabulous: Angelina Jolie in "Salt."

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By Jason Apuzzo.  Now we know why the Chinese communists banned this film.

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Before I tell you how deliciously pleasurable and cathartic Salt is, before I begin to gush in embarrassing ways over Angelina Jolie’s pouty lips and high cheekbones – and how sexy she looks decked out in a Russian fur hat (I’m buying one for Govindini immediately; every beautiful woman should have one) – I need to let you in on a few things that may shock you.  So here we go:

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The premise of the new Angelina Jolie/Phillip Noyce action-thriller Salt is that the United States has been massively penetrated by Cold War-era Soviet communist sleeper agents, who even in exile from contemporary Russia are dead set on America’s destruction.  These agents are nasty, dangerous, and out to get every one of us.  They hide out in the open, but also in upper echelons of power – where they wait patiently to strike.  And there are a helluva lot of them, far too many for our otherwise overloaded intelligence bureaucracies to handle.

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How dangerous are these sleeper agents?  For starters, their first successful operation – as we are informed by way of flashback – was nothing less than the killing of President Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald, who (and here Salt’s fictional story dovetails nicely with actual history) spent several years living in the Soviet Union before returning to his life as an underworld drifter in New Orleans.  And now our nation is flooded with such men – cold, calculating, highly effective killers trained to strike on command and plunge America into its final, richly-deserved (from the communist perspective) apocalypse.

Oh, and by the way – one of them might be Angelina Jolie.  [I knew those lips were too good to be true!]

Does this premise surprise you?  It certainly surprised me, because Hollywood hasn’t been telling stories like this since the 1980’s.  But in point of fact, I don’t even recall films with this sort of premise appearing in the 80’s!  And it’s for this reason that Jolie, Noyce and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura deserve a lot of credit for bringing this taut, intelligent and politically incorrect thriller to the screen right now, when – ironically – we would seem to need it the most.

I’d like to tell you more about the plot of this film, actually, and take you through every suspenseful twist and turn, but that would spoil the fun when you see it – and really you should see Salt.  Because months before Red Dawn is released, months before Mao’s Last Dancer hits theaters – and even, frankly, with an otherwise commendable film like the French Cold War thriller Farewell in theaters right now – Salt is the dealbreaker for me that suggests that Hollywood is not as irretrievably left-liberal-progressive as we’ve been led to believe.  It can’t be, at least not any longer; there is simply no way this film could’ve been made, were it so.  The sense I have is that a fight is underway in the industry right now, that our national narrative is up for grabs.  Maybe it’s backlash against Obama causing this.  Maybe it’s too many years of bad movies belittling the war on terror.  Who knows?  [Plus, there's also the issue of Jolie's father, noted Tea Partier Jon Voight.  Is some of the old man's craggy wisdom finally rubbing off on his formerly estranged daughter?]

Good girls wear black.

In any case, Salt really helps matters right now, provided that you’re oriented toward liberty.  Salt won’t take back Avatar or a lot of other nonsense that the industry has been dishing out, but it definitely is a shot in the arm.  All you really need to know about Salt’s storyline is this: the film has two major cathartic moments in it, both of which revolve around Angelina Jolie terminating communist agents.  And if that doesn’t get your freedom-loving blood flowing, you’re insensate  [Or, alternately, you're one of those well-tailored, narcotized characters in a Christopher Nolan film.]

Salt sets up a situation in which C.I.A. agent Angelina Jolie may be a Soviet sleeper agent.  For quite a while we don’t know – indeed, we’re not even sure she knows, a la Bourne.  Outwardly, she appears to be a highly effective C.I.A. field operative.  We first get to see her in the midst of a harrowing, torture-filled captivity by the North Koreans (the North Koreans wisely keep her in lingerie, however), before she’s released by way of a spy transfer; listen in this sequence, by the way, for the film’s nice potshot at Kim Jong Il.  Once back in the States, Jolie just wants to settle down with her nerdy, German entomologist husband and retire upward to a desk job.

Jolie married to a nerdy German entomologist.  Holding down a desk job.  I know – I laughed, too.

But events won’t let her settle down, of course, because in through the C.I.A.’s door (literally) walks a Soviet agent with a story to tell – a story about a secret communist operation, dating back decades, to train a generation of super-spies to infiltrate the West.  These agents are trained to remain undercover, to adopt Western ways (in Jolie’s case, this obviously includes looking fabulous in a pant suit), and to then strike at the opportune moment.

Mayhem ensues, and the film is off to the races.  What takes over, at this point, is Jolie’s star power.  There’s been a lot of chatter lately over the death of the movie star, how today’s hit movies no longer need stars, etc.  Right.  Salt takes that argument and drops it in the compost pile where it belongs.  Jolie carries this film completely, and frankly Salt suffers in the rare moments she isn’t on-screen.  Everybody else in the cast – and this includes Liev Schreiber – is strictly TV level, and the film might easily have been an episode of  ”Covert Affairs” without her.  As soon as she’s wearing her 60s retro-bangs, and decked-out in all black, you suddenly realize what energy a star like her can bring to a film.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

Once Jolie’s true allegiances are revealed, what’s being set up in this film is a situation in which – in classic action movie style – she can become both a freedom-loving American hero and fulfill a revenge fantasy.  And the film leaves no doubt that its producers are hoping for Salt to become a franchise – one in which Jolie stalks the land seeking retribution against the final vestiges of Soviet communism, hiding here in America.  Wow.  Where do I sign up?  All I ask is that she wears a nightgown in the next film instead of the black duster – which looked a little scratchy, anyway.

*** END OF SPOILERS ***

Of course, here we should pause and address the issue of female stars making violent action movies of this sort.  There were several things I didn’t like about Salt, and one of them involves how frequently – and savagely – Jolie is hit on screen.  Let me make this abundantly clear: civilized society should despise violence against women, fictionalized or not, and even when the woman in question appears to be as rugged (or privately masochistic?) as Angelina Jolie.  It bothered me to no end to watch one guy after another punch or kick Jolie in this film, because striking women is both morally repugnant and cowardly.  There is way too much of this sort of thing in Salt, and it compromised my enjoyment of the film – even though Jolie ultimately dishes out much more punishment than she gets.

She can go blonde, too. Jolie with her CIA colleagues.

So essentially Jolie pays for her action star status in this film by getting slapped around a lot.  And this, I think, is something that women should rebel against – because it’s setting up a situation in which they’re just going to get abused.  It’s too bad the feminists are so asleep on this point.  Or are they quietly complicit?

While I’m at it, I should probably mention a few other things that didn’t work for me in this otherwise enjoyable film.  When Jolie made a spy movie like this several years ago with Brad Pitt called Mr. and Mrs. Smith, she was given opportunities to be sexy, playful, frisky and charming.  The domestic moments between her and Pitt were easily the best part of that film – and, of course, portended real-life dramas to come.  Unfortunately, Noyce gives her no such moments in Salt – she’s treated strictly as an action hero, Stallone with bangs, and that’s a shame.  Salt was screaming out – or maybe just I was screaming out – for one of those scenes that usually take place at an embassy dinner, when the leading lady spy walks in wearing a killer black cocktail dress.  Heads turn, and while the heads turn she slips a beeping transmitter down some guys lapel pocket, or something.  Jolie doesn’t get to use her feminine wiles in this film, which is a big loss.  You never even see her in a dress!  Major mistake.

Also, Salt’s action scenes are shot using a shaky, faux-documentary camera a la Bourne – and this completely drains these scenes of any coherency or artistry.  Everything is just a violent blur.  I suppose this was done to hide the fact that Jolie is not, after all, Bruce Lee – but with good choreography she probably could’ve managed just fine for this film’s purposes, without the cinematographer making a hash of it.

Pretty face in the crowd.

Ultimately, though, what I like the most about Salt is that the film stands squarely on the side of freedom – but does so in an interesting, unexpected way.  Through the first half of the film, the question on the audience’s mind is essentially this: was Jolie brainwashed as a young child into being an assassin?  The second half of the film renders this question moot by telling us that she – and we, by extension – can always still make decisions about our own fate.  Salt thereby takes a trendy premise in recent cinema – that of our ostensibly fungible, unstable identity (re: Christopher Nolan’s Inception) – and turns this premise on its head.  Jolie’s character is given a clear and concise decision to make, a moment in which she can resist her brainwashing and choose sides in the struggle between freedom and tyranny.  Salt tells us that we can make such choices, regardless of how we may have been mentally or emotionally conditioned.

And when Jolie makes that choice … you’re going to smile.  I only got out of the theater a few hours ago, and I’m still smiling.

An interesting footnote: there were a lot of women in the morning screening I was in, many of them middle-aged, and they were enthusiastically applauding at the end of the film.  This did not happen for Inception.

Posted on July 23rd, 2010 at 5:39pm.

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22 Responses to “Jolie vs. The Communists; LFM Reviews Salt

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mr. K, Libertas Film Mag. Libertas Film Mag said: Jolie vs. The Communists; LFM Reviews "Salt" … See: http://bit.ly/c5Ruwu [...]

  2. David E. says:

    Jason: what was the process for this getting made? Is this a reaction to the Obama years? Has the leftism gotten too out of control even for Hollywood? This is an interesting and completely unexpected development.

  3. Sydney says:

    This is the money quote: “Plus, there’s also the issue of Jolie’s father, noted Tea Partier Jon Voight. Is some of the old man’s craggy wisdom finally rubbing off on his formerly estranged daughter?”

    Maybe she’s finally growing up and realizing a few things.

  4. johngaltjkt says:

    Jason, I’ve not seen this movie yet however the point you make regarding Jolie being savagely beaten was the same issue I felt in regard to Kick Ass (crappy movie) and in particular the treatment of the female kid star Chloe Moretz. I thought it bordered on the criminal. The language she used, the violence she committed and was committed upon her was awful and completely out of bounds. I realize it was all make believe but this continuing breaking of barriers and depiction of violence, against and by children has a negative cummlative effect on our society.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Yes, this stuff made me uncomfortable – but I would not say that it ruined the film in this particular case. It’s just a trend that I object to, and which is inevitable with women making these high-octane action flicks.

      And this is one of the reasons why they should’ve had Jolie – or other female stars put in this situation – try to use more feminine wiles, so to speak, to get what they want. Because inevitably when they resort to violence, the violence will be visited on them, as well.

  5. Trojan Horse says:

    Thanks for the alert on this Jason. I had no idea that this had Soviet Communist villains, but if China banned it, then that’s a pretty good indication that it has the right messages. I too am amazed this got made, but rather than look a gift horse in the mouth, I’m just going to go see it.

  6. waltherppk89 says:

    Awesome film. Just saw it and loved it. People, you’ve got to see this. Commie villainy, kick-ass action, Jolie with her mojo back … What more do you need?

  7. Anton says:

    I have a problem with violence against women in this movie too…but for different reasons. It is fake and looks it too. Like most Hollywood movies, men and women leap from buildings and give and endure multiple blows and falls without much bodily damage. If pretty delicate boned Angelina were to do what she did in this movie or in “Mr and Mrs. Smith,” she would be hospitalized for many months…if she were lucky.

    This movie is total fantasy with Jolie’s character more a comic book heroine in a video game. The CIA,,,and indeed most intelligence organizations, do not have many women doing field ops like Angelina. Most are office pogues like Valerie Plame. Even the female head of a CIA station recently killed, was not the type to kit up with automatic weapons and hit the tarmac running. She was a “supervisor,” while former grunts and SEALs did the heavy lifting.

    See “Farewell” or go back and watch “The Kremlin Letter” if you want to see real spies in action (Richard Boone is a dead ringer for REAL super spook Milt Beardon), Granted, all Hollywood movies have technical mistakes (suppressors on revolvers for example in many otherwise good movies), but the respect for the audience is essential and something that many very talented modern day film makers appear to be lacking. Instead, they pour on the technology and use fast camera work and editing to make up for realism.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Anton, thanks for your remarks. If you notice we actually reviewed “Farewell” below very positively:

      http://www.libertasfilmmagazine.com/winning-the-cold-war-in-laffaire-farewell/

      Let’s simply say that ‘realism’ isn’t in any way the point of Salt. The film’s value consists in creating a colorful, heroic character whose mission is a highly unusual one for modern Hollywood cinema: eradicating the last vestiges of communism from American soil. Unfortunately, films like “Farewell” and “The Kremlin Letter” – good as they are – are not going to reach the kind of audience that Salt will, because Jolie is in it. Is she too delicate for the fight scenes? Yes, she is. But we buy into what she’s doing – for the most part – due to her force of personality, which is Jolie’s strength as a star.

  8. Anton says:

    Jason…I do agree about Jolie’s star power and even if this film is not realistic, one can enjoy the entertainment value. I always felt that way about the James Bond series.

    As for the political perspective, having the Commies as enemies is a good selling point. Spielberg/Lucas did that with the last Indiana Jones. It does however, remind of me of left wing politicians tracking right when they are up for re-election. Anything for an audience I suppose.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Thanks for your comments, Anton.

      I don’t think what you have in this instance is audience-pandering, so much as a production team (particularly the director and the producer) who are comfortable in the Cold War mode. Phillip Noyce, for example, did some of the Jack Ryan movies with Harrison Ford.

  9. johngaltjkt says:

    I saw it last night and your review is dead on. Jolie definitely carried this movie and is what I call a “movie star”. When she’s on screen that’s all you can look at. The rest of the cast was mediocre and the direction was serviceable but totally uninspired. The script was by the numbers. I think 99% of the episodes of 24 had more intrigue and twists than this movie did. However it worked and it’s exciting to see Hollywood finally acknowledge the Communist threat, be it 21 years after it’s downfall. This is a trend that I feel started with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (Post Vietnam War) Spielberg made the Commies the villains. I hope this is a trend that continues as you have been chronicling. Now If We could move on to the current and real threats to our country which is Radical Islam and the Manchurian Candidate that We have as President.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Thanks for your comments, as always.

      Actually, the producer of this film is dealing with radical Islamic terrorism in one of his next productions.

      I’m glad you and Anton mention CRYSTAL SKULL, because I don’t think Lucas and Spielberg got enough credit for that. That film proved, I think beyond any doubt, that those guys are open-minded, and not completely off the deep end in James Cameron-land. I thought Cate Blanchett’s turn as a Soviet agent was really fun in that film, and actually the actor who played her chief henchman had been genuine Spetsnaz in real life.

      Here’s what I think is going on: slowly, the commies are replacing the Nazis as the go-to villains in prestige espionage productions. We’re simply so far removed from World War II that it’s expensive and irrelevant to continue telling stories involving the Nazis. Let’s face it, the Nazis were around for only 12 years … and went kaputt 75 years ago! I’m not even sure the younger generation today even knows who the Nazis were. The Soviet commies have only been gone since ‘91 … but we still have the communist Chinese, the North Koreans – and a lingering sense that here in the West communism is still fashionable. So I think things are gradually changing in Hollywood on this front.

      One of the big problems radical Islam is facing here in the West is that is just isn’t sexy the way communism still is to some people. You still see kids with Che T-shirts … but you sure as hell don’t see anybody with a bin Laden T-shirt.

      • Vince says:

        That’s a great call on “Crystal Skull”, Jason. I had no idea that dude was actually former Spetsnaz.

        In the days leading up to the release of that film, I feared a giant sucker punch where the Russians were just trying to get to the Skull alone because the Americans wouldn’t help them because they were too wrapped up in their communist paranoia … or something dumb like that.

        I was surprised to see the Soviets were not only portrayed as ruthless, but wanted to use the skull for one purpose: complete collective mind control … perfect.

        Lucas also deserves credit for the awesome Young Indy episode “Adventures in the Secret Service”, where Indy falls in with a group of Bolsheviks who pester him with their glorious communist rhetoric. Indy smacks them down by telling them of the importance of the individual and capitalism. Great episode.

        • Jason Apuzzo says:

          Wow, Vince! I didn’t know about that Young Indy episode. That’s really interesting. I’ve met George several times in private. Whenever I get the chance to see him again, I may ask him about that!

  10. Anton says:

    One cannot discount the “sexiness” factor when choosing enemies to depict. Islamic terrorists are the antithesis of that. We are aren’t seeing Islamic Mata Hari types trying to seduce young newbie CIA field agents. That could have been a good sub-plot in that DiCaprio “Body of Lies” movie, but instead we got the obligatory ethnic love interest with a heart of gold with “We are the World” seemingly played in the backround.

    The Russians on the other hand, have never stopped using “swallows” as recent events illustrate.

    In addition, state sponsored bad guys like the Russians or Chinese… are more interesting given the many layers and depth of a nation state or society. Islamic terrorism is almost one dimensional by comparison. Islamic terrorists are more likely now to be unsophisticated Madrassa educated suicide bombers…and perhaps a bored housewife… rather than complex good guys/bad guys that were depicted in a movie like “The Little Drummer Girl.”

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Anton, that last point is exactly correct – it’s a subtle point that I’ve been noticing myself. What you lose with the Islamic terrorists is the sense of the chess match, the geopolitical strategy, the big picture. Most terrorists (bin Laden is probably the exception) seem to be just mindless dead-enders, whose chief goal in life is to get their faces on YouTube.

  11. kishke says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Jolie is beautiful. But do you see how bony her hand and wrist are in the top photo? I hope she’s not going all Madonna on us.

    As for whether jihadism is becoming sexy, here’s someone who’s afraid it is:
    http://www.skatingonstilts.com/skating-on-stilts/2010/07/will-jihad-jump-the-shark.html

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      The pressure on actresses to be super-thin is incredible nowadays, and to some extent it makes it more difficult for them to be action stars.

  12. Vince says:

    This topic reminds me of your “Munich” review, Jason. I know it was back in 2005, but I remember it because it was the most measured, informative, and intellectually honest, response to the film I read.

    Also … this is an interesting quote: “One of the big problems radical Islam is facing here in the West is that is just isn’t sexy the way communism still is to some people. You still see kids with Che T-shirts … but you sure as hell don’t see anybody with a bin Laden T-shirt.”

    That may be true to a certain extent. However, I’m reminded of a book I read a couple years ago called “Islam’s Black Slaves” by Ronald Segal, who was a big anti-apartheid activist. It chronicles Islam’s long, and still ongoing, history of enslaving black people in Africa. In the book, Segal talks about how disturbed he is when he sees black people in world take Islamic names like Muhammad or Ayesha — especially when the practice is still going on in Nigeria and Rwanda.

    Anyway, my point is … people may not be wearing bin Laden shirts, but Islamists have found their niche through political correctness, progressive sensibilities, and disturbingly in some parts of the African-American society. Communist documents have also shown concerted efforts to portray Muslims as villains in Western society to create an environment conducive to terrorist attacks.

    • Jason Apuzzo says:

      Vince, thanks very much for your kind words. I remember the “Munich” review, too. :) Colleagues of mine still debate me on it.

      With respect to Islam, I think it’s true that there are many radicalized Muslims who take the ‘long’ view in terms of their long-term strategy toward infiltrating the West, and also societies like India and Russia. My sense, though, is that these strategies proceed on the basis of redundant, plodding effort rather than shrewd strategizing. Immigration, for example, cannot make up for the winning of native hearts and minds – and that just isn’t happening enough (except in parts of southeast Asia) for either the United States, Europe, India, South/Central America or China to be converting to Islam any time soon.

      I do not mean to suggest that radical Islam is in any way toothless right now, it’s just that they’re in the position of really needing to bring firepower to bear on all this (e.g., Iranian nukes), because nobody is taking them seriously on an ideological level.

      Thanks for your comments, Vince. They’re great.

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