There is a somewhat overused piece of advise given to writers: Show, don’t tell. The idea is that having someone simply report to the screen what is happening/happened is not as interesting as actually seeing these things occur. The Last Airbender is a good example of just how awful “telling” can be. Sometimes people overdo it on the ‘showing’, and could do with giving the audience or reader a break, but in general, it’s a useful piece of advise. Salt is a study in how too much telling can cripple even a good movie.
It focuses on the titular Evelyn Salt(Angelina Jolie), a CIA operative who was held captive in North Korea two years prior to the film. It was only the persistence of her then-boyfriend Mike(August Diehl), a German arachnologist that she had been using as an asset, that caused the CIA to get her freed. Mike’s loyalty inspires what appears to be genuine affection in Salt, and by the beginning of the film, are now married. Everything changes for Salt when a Russian man named Orlov shows up claiming that there are undercover Russian spies across the US, all of whom trained since infancy by a master spy. Orlov claims that Salt is one such undercover spy, causing her to have to go on the lam to clear her name.
Her friend at the agency, Ted Winter(Liev Schreiber) is forced to pursue her, along with Agent Peabody(Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is less convinced of her innocence. As she tries to avoid capture and find her missing husband, she performs acts which cause the audience to question whether or not she is the hero or the villain of the story.
One of the best parts of Salt is that there is no character painted in a black or white fashion. Everyone has multiple motivations, moral codes and is capable of thinking and re-evaluating data. In other words, they behave a lot like real people do. It’s a refreshing take when compared to many storytellers who are only able to conceive of Good Guys, capital G, and Bad Guys, capital B. The story of the film is fast paced and engaging. The action is well done, ranging from vicious to inventive to humorous, keeping the audience involved. I am also a fan of practical effects, so I was very pleased to see few special effects used throughout the movie.
You’d think, from that description, that it’s a great flick. Unfortunately, Salt is cut out at the knees by some poor directing/editing in between set pieces. While the action is great and the character moments and tension building are well done, the film is peppered with poorly implemented, mostly unnecessary flashbacks. The first instance involves Orlov telling his tale. It is awkward, but I accepted it, as it was the first flashback in the story, and it was giving necessary information. I think it could have been related better, but I could live with it. However, the film continued to incert flashbacks at random moments, often breaking up the momentum of the film and usually only to tell us things that we already knew. This was especially tacky when the film was trying to show how Salt felt about her husband. Jolie’s acting communicates everything the audience needs to know, making the flashbacks cringeworthy and unnecessary.
The flashbacks are numberous enough that they actually cut down what could have been a solid spy movie to something cheaper and unprofessional. I deeply wish that someone would have told the director to get rid of them, because I enjoyed the bits of the movie in between them, but every time the film began to pick up momentum, to go from one good scene to the next, it is forced back to square one, having to bring the audience back into a story they’ve just been shoved out of.
What saves the film from being mediocre is Jolie. Her performance as Salt is incredibly nuanced. She manages to communicate a complex set of emotions to the audience, from a character who doesn’t express much emotion, and when she does, it is usually fake. It’s an impressive performance, and that plus the interesting set up makes me hope for sequels, with a different director. I think this property could have shone in the hands of someone like Peter Berg. As it stands though, the film’s missteps too often cancel out its successes.
Salt only has one major female character, but she is the main character. Also, as was pointed out to me by a friend, the film is rife with women in the background. The world of Salt is not some strange Otherworld where only men appear, as in most action films. There are female CIA agents, desk clerks, police officers, Secret Service Agents, SWAT team members and even a female bishop. There might not be another major female speaking part, but this is definitely a film in which women are treated as part of the world as a matter of course.
It always bothers and confuses me when people talk about “filling quotas”, as if we need to employ artificial measures in order to have more than just straight white men in film and television. This is ridiculous, as making a world of straight white men is the one that is filling quotas. That is the world in which artificial measures are used to order to select a fictional world’s inhabitants. The natural, normal world is full of people of all genders, shapes, sizes and colors, and to take not only one gender, but one color, one orientation, and one bodily status(able), is incredibly artificial.
Salt is definitely a world of multitudes, where crowds are made up of a more believeable distribution and one in which a female action hero is established as capable, not sexy. I’m also happy to report that the character of Salt never uses her sexuality as a weapon.
While it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, it’s still miles ahead of many other films of its ilk.
Completely Irrelevant, Big Ol’ Lesbian Review
Now I intend to ruin everything I’ve said by saying oh my lord, Angelina Jolie. It was like an ascending scale of hotness. I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. The black hair is amazing on her, but even later in the film, prepare yourself for Angelina Jolie in drag, which is gorgeously androgynous beyond all belief, and then a half-in-drag, half-not, melt me into a pile of goo, scene.
I’m completely defeating my own point about female action heroes here, but I can’t stop myself. Angelina Jolie will defeat my weak human logic every time.