Published July 22, 2010
Poor Angelina Jolie, star of the new spy thriller, “Salt.” OK, you don’t have to feel too sorry for her, as she was paid millions to be in the film. And of course, it’s not every movie that gets lucky the way “Salt” gets lucky: The plotline of “Salt,” about Russian “sleeper” spies in the US, tied in beautifully with the recent torrent of publicity about real-life Russian sleepers--including the tabloid-friendly, pin-up-worthy redhead, Anna Chapman, now back in Mother Russia.
As film director Phillip Noyce joked to The Wall Street Journal, “It would be great if [the Russian spies] all turned up at the Moscow premiere. The photo opportunity of the year will be Anna Chapman and Angelina Jolie in the same picture”--except, of course, Noyce wasn’t joking.
So “Salt” will do fine at the box office. But we still might feel a bit sorry for Jolie, because she has lost the trait that actors need most--the ability to play a character other than themselves. Jolie is not “lost in translation,” to borrow the title of the 2003 Bill Murray movie; she is lost in non-translation. Her abundantly reported off-screen life has overwhelmed her onscreen roles.
The movie stars Jolie as a CIA agent accused of being a Russian spy. Is it a spoiler if I say that the plot seems a bit borrowed from the 1987 Kevin Costner movie “No Way Out”?
But the difference between the star of “Salt” and the star of “No Way Out” is that back then, at the height of his career, Costner could credibly play a wide variety of parts: a crusading lawman in “The Untouchables,” Robin Hood in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” a good-guy baseball fan in “Field of Dreams,” or an Old West cavalry officer in “Dances with Wolves.”
By contrast, Angelina Jolie--a demonstrably talented actress, who not only won an Oscar for her supporting role in “Girl Interrupted,” but also stole that film away from the supposed star, Winona Ryder--can’t disappear into the role of a secret agent.
She has, we might say, been Trapped in the Tabloids.
That is, trapped in the ever-expanding constellation of star-watching outlets--star-embarrassing is perhaps a better term--ranging from the familiar supermarket publications led by The National Enquirer, to The New York Post, to newer web-driven portals such as TMZ.com and Gawker.com.
At some other time we can ask what all this celebrity obsession means for the future of the republic, but for now, we can simply observe that some stars are fated to be Tab-Trapped.
We might consider, for example, the Tab-Trapped fate of Tom Cruise. The couch-jumping Scientology evangelist is an object of morbid fascination, including every aspect of his marriage to Katie Holmes.
Was it arranged by the Scientologists? What’s Tom really all about? What is Scientology all about? Amidst the roar of lurid speculation, Cruise’s voice as an actor can barely be heard; he is no longer credible as a normal romantic leading man.
His latest attempt at an action comedy, “Knight and Day,” disappointed both critics and fans. He is now better off playing wounded Nazis, as in “Valkyrie,” or his playing a cameo as the psycho-rapping movie executive in “Tropic Thunder.”
Similarly, Angela Jolie is Tab-Trapped. She is better known currently for her paparazzi-snapped off-screen antics than her filmed onscreen acts. She’s the woman who used her pillow lips to French kiss her own brother at the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony; the woman who reportedly has tattoos in very strange places; the woman who hooked up with Brad Pitt, inspiring the tabs to dub the couple “Brangelina.”
Together, they adopt children from all over the world, give birth to their own children in Africa for privacy reasons--and then sell the photo rights to People magazine.
Meanwhile every week brings a new report about her relationship with Pitt. Is she about to dump him? Is he about to dump her?
So she just can’t play a halfway normal character anymore. She has to be a superkiller, as in “Wanted,” or a sexy monster--literally, a sexy monster, and without much clothing to boot--as in “Beowulf.”
And so “Salt,” in which Jolie plays a completely abnormal character completely capable of outsmarting--indeed, overwhelming--the CIA, FBI, and the US Secret Service. Who knew that Uncle Sam’s agents were this incompetent?
“Salt” has the germ of a good plot, made all the better because, yes, it does seem ripped from the spy-scandal headlines. Some Americans have looked into Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s soul and seen a good man, a man of faith.
But others have looked into that same soul and seen the words “KGB.” And that seems closer to the truth.
This isn’t the end of history, folks; yes, we won the Cold War, but if we aren’t careful, we could lose the next one.
So “Salt” starts with a cool and creepy premise--that the old Soviet Union created a cadre of super-agents to impersonate Americans and so infiltrate America. One of them was a double for Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President John F. Kennedy.
The real Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, only to un-defect back to the U.S. in 1962 and then shoot the president the following year.
But the film tells us that the real Oswald never made it back to the U.S., that the shooter was one of those Soviet infiltrators. And today, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, those super-agents are still in our midst.
There’s definitely something to chew on there, but John LeCarre-ish subtleties have disappeared from Hollywood’s treatment of spy stories--and from most other kinds of story as well.
Desperate to compete with videogames, Hollywood has let nuance, subtlety, and plot-logic be blasted away by machine gun bursts, multiple car-crashes, and superhero-level stunts, all gathered in an ever-swelling fireball of improbability.
So “Salt,” in a way, has become like Jolie herself. The larger context blots out the thing itself. And that’s unfortunate, because in the past, popular movies have had a way of alerting audiences--especially the young and impressionable--to issues and challenges.
Back in the 30s, pulp sci-fi movies, such as “Buck Rogers,” got kids thinking about air power and rockets, and in the late 50s and early 60s, films such as “The Defiant Ones” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” got another generation thinking about civil rights. But nobody is going to learn much from “Salt,” except that a lone woman can successfully invade the White House complex.
In the meantime, perhaps in Russia, perhaps in Iran, perhaps in China, real spies are gathering. Knowing that we have mostly open borders, as well as a vulnerable cyber-network and a politically correct attitude toward law enforcement and counter-intelligence, those future spies can look at America as a tempting target.
That future spy story might make a great movie someday, but it might be filmed in a different language.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.
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