I Did It to Seem Normal
Near the end of Salt, the U.S. president is hustled into an elevator destined for the secure bunker under the White House. Someone has made an attempt on his life with an explosive device, and oh dear, his Secret Service guys crowd around him and a couple of other nervous-looking suits, all looking aptly concerned as they descend. Amid all the breathing and the pressing, you may notice a face you don’t expect: Andre Braugher.
Or you may not. Playing the unnamed Secretary of Defense, Braugher doesn’t say a word until this throng-of-men lock themselves in the bunker and start discussing a nuclear strike against Russia. The secretary’s one-and-a-half lines don’t matter and barely register, as the film has by now caught its breath and so leaps headlong back into the high velocity action mode that has carried it to this oh-so-tense point.
All of which is to say, Braugher has essentially nothing to do in Salt. Why did someone cast him? Why did he sign on? Perhaps this was always the plan. Or perhaps he had a role once, and it’s long since been excised to achieve the extra-lean, super-fierce film before you, a film modeled on the figure of its star, Angelina Jolie. She more than lives up to her end of whatever bargain was struck to get the thing made. Her Salt is cool and cruel, resilient and ingenious, more Bond than Bond, the character she famously told producer Amy Pascal she wanted to be.
Unlike the dated and familiar Bond, however, Evelyn Salt is also hard to read. In her first few moments on screen, she seems broken, uncool, and—you’re guessing—lying. Imprisoned and brutally abused, Salt insists, tearfully and in her bra and panties, that she’s really, really not what the evil North Koreans think she is, she’s not a spy, she just works for an oil company.
A few more kicks and bloody-pulping punches later, she’s released by way of a prisoner exchange into the hands of her colleague, Ted (Check My Odious Name) Winter (Liev Schreiber). Her face smashed and head bowed, she yet walks fairly briskly alongside him, following instructions not to speak until they’ve reached safe ground. Having established Salt’s abject toughness, the movie reveals in this moment—in a single shot of her face, really—that she is also quite touchingly devoted to her husband Mike (August Diehl), who, Ted tells her, has been the relentless driving force behind her release.
Of course, Salt is a spy. And of course, she’ll endure all sorts of treachery and trauma, watch men spin in circles around her, exact her own vengeance, and expose—to you, anyway—the ineptitude and corruption of the U.S. government. Indeed, her initial display of ease with her CIA coworkers (lodged in a DC office building marked “Rink Petroleum” and calling her “Mata Hari”) gives way almost instantly to a prodigious standoff, wherein she must repel SWAT-style teams with Macguyverish use of cleaning fluids and pantyhose. The (This after she’s been named a double agent by an old Russian [Daniel Olbrychski] who’s wandered in off the street.) Speedy and nimble—in camerawork and cutting—the fight scene pits her against Ted, who seems perplexed, and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who seems dropped in from 24 or maybe Three Days of the Condor, one of those by-the-numbers guys who insists they’ve got to “bring her in or bring her down.” Grrr.
Where such official doubts might typically reinforce your allegiance with Salt, here she only becomes more equivocal. Slivers of flashbacks reveal a background that’s part Nikita, part Bourne, part Dark Angel, with a wink at Manchurian Candidate, lorded over by a man who makes her and squads of fellow trainee kids kiss his ring.
But you knew she was damaged already, in that way that makes her stronger and more resolute, so these conventional reveals don’t offer much in the way of motive or emotional ground. Whether she’s Russian or U.S, she indicates that such identities and ideologies are fundamentally the same. Even her position along a masculine-feminine continuum seems illegible, for her utter isolation makes her difference and attractions mostly irrelevant.
So yes, Salt is a cipher. The good news is that she remains one. The movie doesn’t clean up or explain her brilliance or make her particularly sympathetic… except that everyone seems to be against her or so incompetent that he might as well be against her, and so, and that isolation makes her sympathetic by comparison. Salt doesn’t care about her background any more than you do. She’s an action hero: she suffers, she beats down bad guys, and she manages astounding stunts, leaping from truck-top to truck-top in highway traffic, infiltrating a U.S. Vice President’s funeral, taking out crew after crew of large men with loud weapons.
Amid all this hubbub, Salt emerges as a remarkably efficient character, unapologetically preposterous and unburdened by predictable responses or explicatory dialogue. As you contemplate her stunningly lithe and battered body or unreadable face, you’re left pretty much where Ted is left during an excruciating exchange. Standing with bulletproof glass between them, they gaze unblinking at one another, perversely tender and painfully wily, as each reflects and recognizes the self in the other. Maybe. She’s not ever going to be telling, and in this she is also oddly mirrored in that weird Andre Braugher moment: it doesn’t matter what either says or doesn’t say, does or doesn’t do. The movie goes on with and without them. That’s what action movies always do, even when they pretend something else is at stake.