Salt’s Unsavory Taser and Torture Porn

07/23/2010 12:46 PM |

Salt with Angelina Jolie

Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart go undercover to find out during which sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating salted popcorn. This week they swap spies during Phillip Noyce’s Salt.

SUTTON:
So Henry, is Salt the best movie about method acting since Cruising? Like that pre-Reagan journey down in the dungeons of America’s S&M subculture, Salt hinges to a great degree on Salt’s (Angelina Jolie) convincing performance of gender, or to be more accurate, genderlessness. As in Alias, she’s a woman in the hyper-masculine, pseudo-corporate CIA surrounded nearly exclusively by men—save her young neighbor, no other female character has a name or more than one line. The only man she loves, her former cover during a secret op in North Korea, now her husband (August Diehl), is only ever mentioned menacingly to see if Jolie’s suspected Russian sleeper agent will flinch.

Instead, happily, Salt eschews Bond-style seduction games and only deploys signs femininity to aid her escapes: she tosses her panties over a security camera while breaking out of her fake oil company headquarters after former mentor Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) exposes her; later she smashes a dive bar bathroom dispenser and uses a maxi pad to bandage a bullet wound. For the practically burlesque bunker finale she straight up dresses in drag to infiltrate the White House. Salt is less overtly sexualized than her male cinematic super agent peers (James Bond, Ethan Hunt, Jason Bourne, Jason Statham, etc.), which, for a summer blockbuster whose entire marketing campaign seems very literally to hang on Jolie’s pouty lips, is pretty sweet.

If Salt’s sexual politics are, on balance, much better than the deplorable average, what can we make of its bizarre rewriting of recent and very recent U.S. history? Orlov recounts how Lee Harvey Oswald was actually a brainwashed Russian sleeper agent from an isolated estate in Cold War, Russia, and the JFK assassination was a trial run for an experimental secret agent program. (Which is surprisingly similar to the popular “Reader’s Digest Theory.”) Oswald’s success allowed the unit’s expansion, and as Salt gets underway more Russian secret agents surface, making last month’s spygate little more than a fortuitous bit of viral marketing by Sony. Salt even opens with a spy exchange!

From that North Korean opening to the final Russian plot to bomb Tehran (what?), Salt sets up a bizarrely regressive Axis of Evil. This final throwback to pre-Obama foreign policy (the film’s fictional president is white, his VP recently dead, presumably from heart failure) seems especially unsavory since, as the film began, its baddies were a consortium of CIA goons masquerading as oil company suits, literally a fusion of the two least trustworthy types of people in the world. What do you think, Henry: Should we really applaud Salt for not crassly exploiting its star’s sex appeal, or does its recuperative Republicanism trump any potentially progressive reading?

STEWART:
Ben, I think any movie that opens with Angelina Jolie half-naked, tied to the floor and writhing can hardly be applauded for failing to exploit her sex appeal. Maybe you’re afraid to recognize it as sexy? Sensitive Canadian mores? It’s unfortunate that we (as a country—not you and I, Sutton!) find torture sexy, but, uh, I’m pretty sure violence towards women is definitely considered hot these days. That’s why they call it torture porn? As for that opening, it underlined for me the most glaring aspect of Salt: its calculated unobjectability. Of course the movie opens with waterboarding North Koreans. North Koreans are so evil! Who could dare disagree?

On its face, Salt’s title role looks kind of risky: what kind of Hollywood A-lister takes a part as a Soviet sleeper-spy committed to carrying out the orders of her comrade overlords? (Sean Penn?) That’s when you realize why the movie’s convoluted plotting has the Russian spies killing the Russian president (“Matveyev”), or why Salt kills only filthy, stinkin’, vodka-swillin’, tattoo-covered Commies: it’s a weird political cover for film and star, before she undertakes her superhero-origins-like conversion to full-on good guy. Er, gal. It’s not like she killed any Americans, Ben: I’m pretty sure that in every scene she violently disarmed her American opponents and nothing more, except for one scene in which she wreaks havoc on the NYPD, which Hollywood apparently hates.

Hell, even making the Russians the bad guys—bent on taking over America’s nukes, because that’s one way to win an arms race—is kind of hilarious: it’s so inherently kitschy, no matter how solemn the film looks, so pre-Craig Bond that you can’t imagine anybody taking offense. Whereas, Ben, you know if they had made the bad guys Muslims you’d have some bleeding heart whining about how not all Muslims are evil!

So, Ben, what did you think about the Body Snatchers-on-time-delay plot about Soviets replacing almost an entire generation of Americans with specially trained lookalikes set to activate decades later? (Oh, Sony was definitely behind that whole spygate thing.) Something about how Americans are actually their own worst enemies? Or, is it a vacuous line to try and follow? All I got was we should keep grandparents away from grandkids, because most children never outgrow the ideology instilled in them when they’re young.

SUTTON:
Your frustration with the Ruski run-around, Henry, and the obsessively inoffensive geopolitics of Salt, underlines the disappointment I was expressing earlier with the way that screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Brian Helgeland retract the early intimations of CIA culpability. This is part of why the film (and the franchise it wants so badly to set in motion) ultimately can’t measure up to its male spy analog, the Bourne series, in which there’s absolutely no question that American operatives are the bad guys. Heck, even The A-Team had the balls to point fingers at the U.S. military, but sleeper agent Chenkov refuses to throw salt in the Central Intelligence Agency’s wounds. I guess that just proves how much shittier the Soviets were at brainwashing.

As to your suggestion that the dormant throngs of Russian sleeper spies demonstrate some kind of innate predisposition to childhood indoctrination, I think Salt (and Salt) goes the distance to disprove you. Furthermore, you seem to imply that one of these alternate lives (secret agency) is inherently truer than the other, like a solid foundation lying underneath a decorative structure. The film problematizes this too, namely by revealing that Salt’s husband was originally her cover for an operation in North Korea. The relationship between regular life and spy-hood is fluid, not hierarchical, something other elaborate brain-programming and life-engineering narratives like The Manchurian Candidate, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and even Buffy, have demonstrated within their own mythologies. Just because Salt and her homeboys are pre-programmed Russian terrorists in waiting doesn’t mean they can’t be nice neighborly Americans too, ya know?

But enough about brainwashing, Henry, let’s talk about the most egregious tasering scene since The Hangover. Specifically, how Salt uses a taser to basically remote control an NYPD officer and cruiser during her escape on the Queensboro Bridge. You’re right to point out that she often opts for non-lethal methods to neutralize American opponents. But in that sequence she basically treats some portly policeman like an electrical wire, inverting the typical cop-on-perp tasering situation in a cruel little reversal at which I couldn’t help but laugh. Magically, though, he doesn’t die—I guess only cops know how to push the threshold of taser pain past the limit.

Speaking of pain inflicted and endured for the audience’s benefit, I’m curious about your suggestion that the opening’s lacy waterboarding was meant to be sexy. I found that passage pretty repulsive, which we could probably chalk up to Sony botching our screening and making us watch the first 20 seconds of Salt six times without sound (or maybe I’m just a less sadistic person than you are). But even the clement Canadian in me has to confess that there’s something to your claim that, in a fundamentally different way from, say, Daniel Craig being nearly castrated in Casino Royale, Salt endures a great deal of pain for the (mostly male) audience’s pleasure. From her beatings-as-brainwashing in childhood to Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor punching her ceaselessly throughout the last two scenes, Salt has really earned a Laura Mulvey-ian rescue from the sadomasochistic clenches of patriarchal cinema. Won’t you help her out, Henry?

STEWART:
Funny how tasering is only funny when it’s not really supposed to be, eh Ben? Anyway, I didn’t see spy-hood as very fluid in Salt. In fact, I think maybe that ties into its central theme. When she runs away from the CIA at the beginning of the film, we’re supposed to believe that it’s all for love—that she’s worried about the safety of her husband (the German Iraq-ologist arachnologist, which allows for a spider-venom gag I’m sure was lifted from Lost’s notorious “Expose” episode). I was all like, “pffft, no way that could be true—it’s so pedestrianly American!” But then, it does turn out to be true!

Salt’s driving motivation through the whole film is protecting her husband, and then avenging that husband. The Commies kill him because those atheist bastards think love is some phony bourgeois value—it’s a test to make sure Salt hasn’t gone over to the dark side. But Salt is under no such ideological illusion: she knows that love comes before all else! When she explains her hatred for the Soviets, she says, “they took everything from me”. What does a gal have but her husband, Ben? This Soviet superspy has become—gulp—so American!

So could we call this movie The Americanization of Salt? Or does that sound too much like the title of some popular-history-of-food book? I think the movie’s point is that there are good guys and bad guys, but the way we determine which side is which is by where their heart is. The movie is so politically safe because politics are just window dressing, Ben, practically a red herring. The real difference between the West and its enemies—and this goes for the Nihilist Hipsters Terrorists, too—is their capacity to love.

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