' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Salt

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Some Drivel On...Salt

Here is something you may or may not know: Angelina Jolie is 5 feet 7 inches tall. That’s a fact, yes, but I don’t believe it. I do not believe that I am taller than Angelina Jolie. It’s inconceivable. That’s the irresistible lie of the big screen, how it can render someone the same height as Mark Zuckerberg bigger than the Sphinx. Movie Stars and the typically annoying conversations surrounding them – whether they exist, what makes them – tend, as I have lamented so many times before, to be frustratingly distilled down to box office receipts, or some irksome variation of analytics, as if you can quantify something as ineffable as screen presence. Angie cracked the code, if only more people would notice. You could see that presence beginning to fuse with her acting in “Alexander” (2004) where, even as she chewed scenery, she held the screen with a magnetism befitting the Queen of Macedonia. You could see it, too, in “Wanted” (2008) which, for all its bells and whistles, was best when Jolie was simply sauntering across screen or standing there. Seriously, no modern actor just stands on screen like Angelina Jolie; it is an elemental gift. But it was not until “Salt” in 2010 when a director, the veteran Phillip Noyce, truly seized on Jolie’s presence by making virtually an entire movie out of it.

Salt is the surname of Evelyn (Jolie), a CIA agent, one tasked with interviewing a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) as the movie opens. The defector weaves a grand tale of Russian sleeper spies implanted all over the American government, waiting to strike, citing one secret agent in particular: Evelyn Salt. ’Tis a grand setup, truly grand, culminated in how Noyce shoots the immediate aftermath of this revelation in a finely calibrated series of close-ups, of Salt, of her superior officer (Liev Schrieber), of the CIA counter intelligence officer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) listening in, an early signal of Noyce honoring the principle tenet of the silver screen being about human faces. Indeed, that set-up is extra brilliant because it lays out in exact detail what is going to happen, the only question being whether or not Salt really is who the defector says she is, meaning that rather than digging in our heels and paying attention, we can lean back and lose ourselves in the movie, in exacting action sequences where Salt is locked in a contained CIA room and has to manufacture escape or, when seemingly cornered on a city street, leaps from a freeway overpass onto a passing semi-truck below. Whether the latter makes sense where the laws of physics are concerned, as a common action movie complaint goes, makes little difference because visually it makes complete sense. Noyce and his crack cinematographer Robert Elswit, bless their hearts, forgo blurs of close-ups to shoot coverage and maintain spatial coherence. 

As Salt, Jolie begins the movie in a familiar register, playing a woman who, initially, just wants to get home in time for an anniversary dinner with her husband (August Diehl) and then, once all hell breaks loose, assuming an air of determined desperation, evinced in how she grits her teeth as as the walls figuratively close in. But then, a curious, interesting thing happens. As it becomes clearer that Salt is, in fact, a Russian sleeper spy (11-year old spoiler alert), Jolie lets that sort of Richard Kimble-ish countenance fall by the wayside, simmering down. Jolie is doing this in part as a feint, to make us wonder what the character is up to as she assassinates the Russian President (or does she?). Whatever it means, though, proves less crucial to how it all feels, the powerful grace with which Jolie moves, highlighted in the elegant motion of Noyce’s camera, and, even more, the ultra-cool with which she does not move on camera at all, an action blockbuster merging with a study of performative charisma. When her character is momentarily caught mid-movie and raises her hands, her smile is more of a taunt, sure, but it’s also her ultimate movie star moment, the one when Jolie effortlessly harnesses the full capacity of the camera.

Initially Tom Cruise was slated to play Salt, then named Edwin, before he dropped out, apparently deeming the part too close to his recurring “Mission: Impossible” role. When Jolie stepped in, so too did screenwriter Brian Helgeland, tailoring the character for a woman. How much of a change there was, I don’t know, but it’s not difficult to imagine the most significant alteration as occurring less on the page than in actorly demeanor. In the increasingly excellent M:I movies, Cruise has perfected his own movie star persona, one I have previously appraised, harmonizing with his penchant for intense DIY stunts to aggressively demonstrate his commitment, in the way he squints, grimaces, runs, jumps. Jolie, too, was lauded for doing some of her own stunts in “Salt”, but rather than underlining it, strains all that zealousness away, opting for a potent manifestation of cinema’s oldest, truest rule: less is more. Rarely has less been so much.   

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