‘Salt’: When a Spy Is Just a Spy

Angelina Jolie is Salt. Normally, a critic’s statement like that implies that an actor becomes their character. However, here the sentence means exactly how it reads: she is the film. The truth is there isn’t much to Evelyn Salt for Jolie to inhabit, but Salt, the movie, is nonetheless owned by the novelty and charisma of its lead.

Evelyn Salt is the kind of character normally reserved for male actors and, in fact, was originally ‘Edwin Salt’, with Tom Cruise initially envisioned in the role. One of the few distinguishing characteristics of the movie is how little the role appears to have changed in the transposition from male to female. There are only one or two moments where it is difficult to imagine the action unfolding any differently with a man in the lead as opposed to a woman.

One of those moments might be the opening scene, which occurs two years before ‘the present day’, in a North Korean prison. Salt has been stripped down to her underwear and is being stretched out and tortured by her captors. Despite the near nakedness, the scene does not read as having been shot or staged for titillation. Cuts are quick, the action is discomfiting, and the camera is not used to fetishize Jolie’s body. Whether Tom Cruise, or some other male actor, would have been exposed in the same way is difficult to say, but the lack of sexualization to the scene suggests a staging that is largely indifferent to sex or gender.

As the transition is made to the present, it is revealed that Salt works for the CIA, via a front company, alongside Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), and that she is married to a German scientist, Michael Krause (August Diehl), who she met initially during a mission to recruit him as a cover for entry into North Korea.

As the work day winds down on the date of her wedding anniversary, Evelyn is practicing a few girly skills and making small talk with Ted, when a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up. She and Winter head to the interrogation rooms to see if he is legitimate and they meet with counterintellgence agent, Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The defector, Vassily Orlov, spins a tale about a secret Soviet program to train kids as moles who were then scattered throughout Europe and North America. The punchline to this story is that Evelyn is one of those agents, and her mission is to assassinate the Russian president at a funeral for the US vice president, to be held in New York the next day. This is the beginning of “Day X”, a plot to bring about the political destruction of the United States.

Peabody’s impulse is to detain Salt while Orlov’s claims are investigated, but she is immediately concerned, justifiably it appears, for the safety of her husband. So, she runs, and the movie becomes a chase. The harder Salt runs, the more questions start to arise as to whether she is, in fact, a Soviet/Russian plant. In the end, the answer to that question is more complicated that it seems, and, predictably in a story about Cold War era moles and counterintelligence, more than one character turns out to be other than they first appear.

In enacting the chase, Jolie gets to do all of the things that male heroes normally do; disguises, ingenious escapes, taking down multiple attackers in hand-to-hand combat. The set pieces and fight scenes are all competently choreographed, but nothing is likely to make your jaw drop. The one aspect of the action that director Phillip Noyce and his stunt team seem to have thought through in a notable way is how to make the fights and chases work with a protagonist who is frequently outmatched physically by her challenges and opponents. Fight scenes and escapes are constructed around Salt’s speed, skill, and intelligence, and of knowing how to use her body and to resist pain.

From a gender and genre perspective, what is particularly interesting is how Jolie is allowed the role of protective and vengeful spouse. Michael is truly an innocent victim in all of this, the husband as damsel in distress. She undergoes a number of transformations, the most over the top being into Russian beauty and femme fatale, she isn’t actually Russian, but from there she adopts a disguise as a man, which leaves her in an androgynous look, effectively un-sexed, for the final act.

Like her male counterparts — Jason Bourne, James Bond, Ethan Hunt — Evelyn Salt ultimately does what she does alone, and not with a partner or as part of a team, or under direction from a handler, but by essentially relying on herself.

While the action maybe largely conventional, elevated by its gender politics, the complicated plot and backstory are left with a number of holes and unanswered questions. How, for example, do you train children so that they become super spies as adults, and how do you keep them committed to their mission over all of those decades, especially when scattered across the globe and with the end of the Cold War? It also isn’t clear who exactly is keeping the Day X plan alive or why. To get the last laugh maybe, but this isn’t examined. Whether the Soviet agents are conscious of who they are, or need to be ‘activated’, is also a rather obvious matter that, purely from a genre-perspective, ought to be addressed, but is instead left to inference.

In a similar vein, the film’s geopolitical context reads as a strange sort of sideways world where US-Russian relations remain a defining force in global politics, and where American political leaders build reputations from their work on issues with Russia. Salt seems as mired in the Cold War as its antagonists appear to be, but without developing an alternate reality where this would make sense or attempting to be grounded in current events.

The “Theatrical Edition” DVD includes the version of the film released in theaters, two short features clearly made to promote the film, one on Jolie’s training and stunt work and one on her character’s disguises, a commentary track and an interview featuring Noyce.

Noyce’s commentary track offers a particularly personal take on the movie. He talks about his family’s history with spy training in World War II, his relationship to Hollywood, and how he locates Salt in his filmography. He also discusses doing background research into Soviet espionage programs, and the evolution of the script. When turning his attention to sound and music, he brings frequent collaborator and composer Joe Rand into the discussion. It’s an interesting track, well-supplemented by the included interview with Noyce and Elvis Mitchell on “The Treatment”.

Salt ends in a way that deliberately points to a sequel. It certainly made enough money at the box office to justify a second outing for the character, but Hollywood producers and executives have shown themselves to be wary of female-led films, especially ones that break familiar molds. If a second movie does get made, it will be most interesting to see how the character is handled. One of the insights taken from Noyce’s commentary track is that Jolie has strong ideas about who her character is and how she would act. Maybe she also has the clout to protect her in the writing and shooting of a new script where everyone already knows that the lead will be a woman.

RATING 6 / 10