SPOILERS! SPOILERS FOR WHOLE MOVIE! LIKE, I'M INCLUDING THE END! ALL OF IT!
SUMMARY: Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who works with Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and is happily married to world-class arachnologist Mike Krause (August Diel). On her anniversary, a mysterious Russian named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) turns himself in and claims that Salt is, in fact, a Russian spy, whose mission is to kill the Russian president the following day. Salt claims this is false, but runs away, convinced that both she and her husband may be in grave danger, while Winter and fellow CIA agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) track her. Salt responds by jumping onto a lot of moving cars and trucks and other stuff.
- Salt & Gender: So Salt is Angelina Jolie, and she does the things that typically male action stars do--i.e., be the lead action star. It’s not like this is a first or anything, but it’s still more typical for a man to be the super spy on the run. Salt has the Loving Wife, er, Husband, whose role in the plot is to be threatened and discarded; he is smart and has his own life to live but his entire plot function is to serve her. What’s interesting is that the film actually plays with this a bit, beyond merely setting up the same situation as usual, but with reversed-genders. Every other spy we see is male; every other person who went through the Russian secret training program Salt went through is male. So there’s one sequence where Salt blows up all the other spies (getting revenge on them for killing her husband), and then, soon afterwards…she gets made up entirely a la garconne, with a short haircut and a male-body-tailored suit and I’m not quite sure if she’s supposed to just look different or if she’s actually posing as a man. Something about this seems to be a statement: Salt/Angelina Jolie has to beat up all the boys and then later pose as one as part of her general attempt to make it into action stardom. And she does; no female counterparts throughout the film. Salt’s gender is not a point ever made explicit in the film, but at the end there’s another exchange between Chiwetel Ejiofor (sadly underused) and Salt that seems to resonate: “How many others are there like you?” he asks. “There are no others like me. There are lots like him.” She’s not talking about male/female, but, well, she does seem to be the only female spy, and also the only spy who turns out to be OK after all, so maybe there’s some statement in there (probably unintentional, probably unfortunate) about how women are better than men because…um…because they fall in love and get married? (The spies weren’t supposed to get married, and she did because it was convenient to do so, but…she was also told to get married by Winter. It’s pretty tangled.)
ETA: I checked it out on Wikipedia, and, guess what, the script, as originally written a few years ago, was about EDWARD A. SALT who would have been played by Tom Cruise. So Salt being a woman was a somewhat late script development, which perhaps explains why the film still seems to have the baseline assumption of all spies being male, except for the Angelina-shaped exception.
- Salt the Russian doll: A Russian doll is on the counter in Salt's apartment in one shot, and I think this is the essential image of the film--though Russian dolls should have gotten full motif status, rather than a one off. Salt's central identity is a Russian spy, outer identity is American spy, outer outer identity is devoted wife; it’s the outer identity she takes when she’s in North Korea at the beginning of the film, and it’s the middle identity that she takes in her day-to-day job. The story is that Outer Identity turns out to be the central one, even deeper than the Russian spy gig, because her husband showed her more love and kindness than anyone else by using his special arachologist powers (no, I don’t mean like Peter Parker, I mean like the powers of the world’s foremost guy who studies spiders which apparently is enough to convince the American government to push to trade for a spy, for, um, some reason) to release her, when her American spy colleagues and Russian spy colleagues don’t go for her. So, it’s ultimately about the love of a good man, and I’m not sure if this is something that would be pulled in a gender-reversed story; the love of a good woman does redeem cads a lot of the time though. Have to think about it. Still, given that the relationship is not developed except through flashbacks, the revelation that she actually loves him best and loves him enough to break out of her training-from-infancy doesn’t hold all that much weight.
- Winter & Salt: the words salt and winter are both associated strongly with the colour white, though winter only gets there by first going through snow. White = Russia? (There’s the White Russian drink, and Siberia and cold and, um, primarily Caucasian population.) Chiwetel Ejiofor is black, which is how you know he’s not a Russian spy.
- Salt & genetics: We have a firm stance on the nature/nurture debate right here: Salt’s parents were one of the foremost Russian wrestlers, and the only female chess grandmaster of the time. Which is why she’s so strong and smart. And is also once again the only woman in the room.
- Winter and Orlov’s plan: The basic plan was apparently to have Salt kill the Russian president to make it look like the Americans were assassinating him, so that the Russians would start threatening to go to war and start arming their nuclear missiles. Then, another assassination attempt is made, this one on the U.S. president, in order to convince him to go into his underground bunker. Winter then convinces the president that this may all be part of the Russian Day X, which Orlov loudly announced the day before the Russian Pres’ assassination; this, along with the Russians actually arming missiles, convinces the President to enter his pass-code to arm missiles. Then Winter kills everyone in the room except for the President, and then (this is the part that doesn't end up happening) nukes Mecca and while Salt also is sent to go after the President, presumably so that she can eventually be named as the patsy for Winter’s actions. Winter then loads the missiles. Then Salt ends up beating Winter by, like, shooting through a different part of the wall than the bulletproof glass and then beating up Winter so, um, good for her. The death of the Russian president was necessary to convince the Russians to arm their missiles, and otherwise the American president wouldn’t arm his missiles--unless the Russians knew their own plan, and were going to arm their missiles anyway, and so the Russian president was killed because he was inconvenient and it made the U.S. look bad--unless…well, I’m not sure. Similarly, Salt was set up to take the fall for killing the President’s men and nuking parts of the Middle East, because, um, people would otherwise suspect Winter who, um, is the sole survivor and could craft whatever story he wanted about Salt or whoever, and Salt is a loose cannon who he didn’t want near by but that’s what makes the plan so perfect! Right? Also, Winter encouraged Orlov to announce the whole plan to the CIA et al. so as to eventually finger Salt, even though Winter really needed Salt to be alive at least until the DEFCON situation which was after the Russian President’s death, so he needed to bank entirely on Salt getting away with killing the Russian President which would have been much more certain if the entire secret service wasn’t after her. But I guess he knows that she’s more badass than the entire Secret Service, which is, uh, why he made sure she had orders to go kill the President, where she was the only person who could reasonably have stopped him with his super spy skills, whereas if no one had told Salt to go there he definitely would have succeeded, so. Um. Right.
- Winter’s evil: I think, generally, I have a problem with superspies who are willing to commit genocide for nationalistic reasons, and are concerned about their reputation afterwards. Bond villains who kill millions for personal gain I can understand. But if someone is doing something for their country, then they should be willing to die. Winter didn’t need a patsy; it really doesn’t matter whether the U.S. found out after the fact that he was a spy to anyone but him. And even if it did matter, obviously thinking that a different Russian spy did it would look no worse on Russia. This sounds like a silly distinction to make, but the idea of a super spy who does things for purely nationalistic reasons and is trying to protect his own ass just seems like a lazy form of one-dimensional supervillainy, and not the good kind of one-dimensional supervillainy.
- Salt on the road: There’s a The Dark Knight type ending, whereby Peabody has a chance to let Salt go, even though people will believe that Salt is, in fact, the bad guy who tried to start a nuclear war. Who is going to believe Salt and not Winter, when Winter was claiming that she was the bad guy? Oh, woe is her. But no--Peabody believes her, and realizes that she can do good if he lets her get away. So presumably in Salt-sequels, she will be an avenging angel pursued by the US government, kind of like in this movie. Just one problem: the President of the United States saw Winter kill a bunch of people and threaten to kill him! The President of the United States is usually considered a reliable witness! He could totally, if not clear Salt’s name alone, at least confirm her story that Winter is a really, really bad guy and a major threat to national security and the real traitor! He’s the President, and everyone forgot about him?
- Conclusion: Angelina Jolie was pretty good. I think she carries the action star well and she does what she can with her emotional moments. Liev Schreiber was a great villain (my objections to his writing aside). I think the action moves at a reasonable clip, and there’s a near-assassination scene that involves the use of an organ in a clever way. The usual action-heroics are present, which means lots of defying the laws of physics, which is par for the course; that the movie doesn’t hold up as a spy movie, which it clearly wants to be, is a bit sadder, and probably ultimately makes it less worthwhile. But still, I think Jolie really does have the action star thing down, so hopefully she’ll be in better ones.