Monday, November 15, 2010

Salt -- Identity and Motive; Who and Why?

"Who is Salt?" That is the question at the heart of the movie, and its marketing campaign, driving it along its action-packed journey. And it underscores the issues addressed, albeit superficially, in this thriller.

We meet Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie, Changeling) in the introduction, which occurs two years before the setting of the story. She is a captive of the North Koreans, bound and being tortured, all the while denouncing their claim that she is a CIA spy. But is she? When the Americans, led by her boss Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber, The Manchurian Candidate), negotiate a transfer of prisoners, she is set free. But it is her German husband-to-be, Mike Krause (August Diehl) whose incessant appeals have instigated this. So, is she CIA?

Cut to the present and we find out that she is indeed a CIA spy, an assassin and covert operative. As her workday as a corporate executive is about to end and she is ready to go celebrate her wedding anniversary, a Russian defector Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) shows up ready to give up national secrets. This on the eve of the Russian President's visit to the US to pay his respects at the funeral of the US Vice President. When Winter puts Salt in the cell to do a quickie interrogation, Orlov drops a bombshell. He has trained a team of children to live in America as sleeper agents waiting for his word to strike at the heart of the US. But the biggest shock is the name of the agent who will kill the Russian President in New York: Salt. So, is she CIA or a carefully prepared Russian spy?

From here, Orlov escapes surprisingly from the hands of two experienced CIA agents. Salt herself is able to escape from the CIA locked interrogation cell, and then from the building despite a SWAT team ready to take her down. On the run, Salt avoids her friend and boss, as well as the chief US interrogator Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But her husband disappears and she has multiple threats to worry about.

Salt becomes a female version of The Bourne Identity and carries with it the same intense action sequences and hand-held camerawork. The story, at a mere 100 minutes, feels fast-paced as this kind of thriller should. The stunt work is stellar, although somewhat unbelievable. Jolie appears clinging to buildings or jumping from moving truck to moving truck, hanging on by the very tips of her painted fingernails. But Jolie pulls off the difficult task of being a killer secret agent while remaining feminine and sexy. She has the ability to change her appearance at the turn of a stolen hat.

As the film progresses, the plot thickens with key twists and turns, particularly one midway through, that really leave us wondering who Salt is. Is she the person Orlov described? Is she the innocent, she claimed in the intro? Is she a defamed CIA agent whose own country will not accept her?

Salt really touches on the question of identity. And it makes us reflect on the identity of those around us, as well as our own identity. We can look at people and see what they want us to see. We take at face value their claims of ancestry and pedigree. We don't think to question their veracity. But we don't really know. Are they lying, even a little. Perhaps their stories are spun to make them look better. Who are they? Can we really know, short of a thorough background check, which few of us will do?

What about our own identity? This is probably more relevant. Who do we present ourselves to be? Are we being open and honest with those in our circle of influence, our family, friends, coworkers, etc? Will we maintain our integrity, as Job did despite all the trials he faced and the tempation to turn against God (Job. 2:9)? As children of Adam we have a tendency to lie and deceive, as Satan did to Eve who led her husband into the original sin (Gen. 3). Our fallen nature leans this way. We tend to hide our identity behind a mask of deceit and hypocrisy. But as followers of Jesus, our new nature (2 Cor. 5:17) demands that we speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), even if this portrays us as less than we desire.

Further, Salt makes us ponder our motives and drives. What was driving Evelyn Salt? Not knowing who she is, it is hard to understand inner drivers. But knowing ourselves to some degree, we can seek enlightenment from the Spirit to show us why we do the things we do. Sometimes it is our old nature that pushes us. As Paul says in Romans 7:15, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." At other times, we are "compelled by the Spirit" (Acts 10:22) in our actions. The more we know who we are, the easier it is to understand our motives and drives, and align them with God's plans.

Salt presents a sweet action thriller but ultimately leaves us hanging, like its heroine. It never really answers the question it set before us: who is Salt? We never really find out. And the ending's ambiguity seems destined to encourage a sequel. Will that answer the question? I doubt it. But it will likely be a fun journey, like this one, nevertheless.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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