Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
Imagine only being able to communicate through blinking. Now imagine trying to dictate your memoirs in this grueling and time-consuming fashion. That’s how Jean-Dominique Bauby had to put his life and thoughts down on paper. The editor of French Elle suffered a stroke so severe that it rendered him almost entirely paralyzed for the remainder of his short life. He died less than 18 months later just days after the publication of his 1997 memoirs. Making amends for his laughable adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera Ronald Hardwood pays homage to Bauby’s remarkable achievement with an eloquent screenplay that examines the power of the mind over the body. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly begins on the day when Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) wakes up from a coma and is alarmed to find himself in a hospital completely paralyzed and unable to speak. But his mind is sharp as it ever was. Flashbacks reveal Bauby to be a man who lived life to the fullest and relished every challenge that came his way. So being stuck in a body that no longer functions as it once did is clearly pure hell for Bauby--until his therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) teaches Bauby to communicate by blinking his left eye. Bauby suddenly decides to honor a book contract he had signed before his stroke--and in the process he discovers his raison d’être. Like My Left Foot’s Daniel Day-Lewis before him Amalric indelibly proves that the mind can and will thrive even when the body is broken and beyond repair. Amalric though has less to work with than the wild-eyed Day-Lewis who had the luxury of drawing you into his performance by tapping into Irish author Christy Brown’s abrasive personality and larger-than-life presence. It’s mesmerizing to watch the intrepid Amalric at work even though he’s practically motionless for the entire film bar for a few flashbacks. While the rest of his face remains frozen solid Amalric eloquently expresses Bauby’s innermost hopes and fears through the mere blink of his left eye. There’s never a time when you don’t know how Bauby feels. And his narration is laced with gallows humor which helps keep Diving Bell free from drowning in sentimentality. As Bauby’s therapist Croze personifies patience dedication and resourcefulness we all expect and demand from health-care professionals but don’t always receive. Emmanuelle Seigner maintains a brave face as Bauby’s neglected wife Céline. You wait for Céline to crumble especially as Bauby never stops asking about his mistress but Seigner reveals Céline to be caring and forgiving. The most heartbreaking moments come between Amalric and Max von Sydow who plays Bauby’s father who is much trapped inside his apartment as Bauby is inside his body. There’s great sadness and regret to be found in von Sydow’s every word as he comes to the painful realization that he will outlive his rich and successful son which no father wants to do. Yes Diving Bell is the latest in a long line of inspirational fact-based films about physically and/or mentally challenged people mastering their disabilities. But director Julian Schnabel distinguishes himself and the film by shooting the first act solely from Babuy’s perspective. We see everything Bauby sees through his one good eye from the moment he comes out of his coma. What follows is confusing disorienting and taxing. And darkly humorous as evidenced by Bauby’s admiration of his females nurses. Schnabel’s approach though works to dramatic effect because we receive a greater understanding and appreciation of what Bauby’s experiencing. Stay the course and you will be rewarded for your patience. Once Bauby comes to terms with his fate and refuses to spend the rest of his days wallowing in self pity Schnabel finally turns his camera on Bauby to reveal his post-stroke physical appearance. It’s a quiet but ingenious way for us to accept Bauby as he accepts himself. Schnabel then concentrates on Bauby’s Herculean effort to dictate his autobiography which is occasionally interrupted by poignant flights of fantasy (it’s not hard to guess what the diving bell and the butterfly symbolize). Equal amounts of joy and regret are be found in Bauby’s reminiscing but Schnabel never tries to romanticize his subject or ignore to his past transgressions. Diving Bell doesn’t set to turn a flawed man into a hero but Bauby’s will and determination ultimately reinforces the notion that anything’s possible if you set your mind to it.