I have long come to accept that, when it comes to issues of gender equality, most movies are like Iron Man 2. If you’ll remember, that’s the film in which Gwynneth Paltrow said she was better suited to be a secretary than a CEO, Scarlett Johansson beat up an army but only because she was given permission ahead of time by a very manly Samuel L. Jackson, Jr., and the world was saved because Robert Downey, Jr. made peace with the patriarchy. While the inherent sexism of most movies has never ceased to bother me, I’ve come to accept it because I love film.
(For the record, I enjoyed Iron Man 2 even if I did roll my eyes more than once.)
Still, hope continues to rest at the bottom of Pandora’s box. With the year only a little more than a half over, American movie screens have played host to a handful of unusually strong and independent female characters. (It’s the independence that sets them apart.) From Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone to Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank to even Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in the Runaways, they have challenged the standard movie stereotype of the weak, ultimately helpless female. The best known of them is, of course, Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. However, if the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo features the strongest woman to appear on American movie screen this year, the just-released Salt features the second strongest.
In Salt, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who is married to Mike (August Diehl), a nice guy who happens to be the world’s leading authority on spiders. On the day of her wedding anniversary, Salt finds herself tasked with interrogating a Russian defector named Orlov. As Salt listens (and her fellow agents watch), Orlov tells a story of how, decades earlier, hundreds of Russian children were secretly smuggled into the U.S. where they served as “sleeper” agents, working their way into American society until such time as they might be activated. Orlov goes to explain that one of these sleeper agents is going to assassinate the President of Russia. That agent, Orlov adds, is named “Evelyn Salt.” While Salt’s co-workers react to this accusation by attempting to arrest her, Salt reacts by escaping from custody and fleeing in an attempt to both find her husband, who has mysteriously disappeared, and prove her innocence.
Or is she? There’s a lot of twists and turns in Salt’s plot and while they don’t always make sense, they’re a lot of fun to watch. Director Phillip Noyce keeps the action moving and, in the lead role, Angelina Jolie brings a wonderful sense of moral ambiguity to the character that you’re never quite sure whose side she is really on. Jolie makes the character seem real even when she’s jumping off a bridge and landing on top of a speeding truck without so much as even a bruise as a result.
Admittedly, I enjoyed Salt for much the same reason that I enjoyed the far superior Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It was fun to not only see a woman in a movie do stuff that usually only a man is allowed to do but also manage to do all of it a lot more convincingly than most contemporary male action heroes. With the exception of a very intense torture scene at the start of the film, Salt is never shown with tears in her eyes. She is never shown begging for mercy. Most importantly, she is never portrayed as being helpless. Considering just how much importance society puts into the idea of all women being inherently helpless, movies like Salt are a refreshing change of pace.
Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that pretty much everything Salt did in the film was basically done to save her marriage. As strong a character as Salt was, its unfortunate that the film had to make sure we understood that it was all due to the purifying love of one man. It’s as if the filmmakers were worried that if they made Salt too independent, they’d lose the audience and they were probably right.
Still, 2010 may very well be remembered as the year that women in movies were finally allowed to kick some ass. After an eternity of serving as decorations (with their every action governed by some male filmmaker’s infantile Whore/Madonna complex), women are finally being allowed to do something other than scream and wait to be rescued. Will this trend continue? Probably not. It’s a bit much to ask of a country that can’t even bring itself elect a female President. However, while it lasts, I’m enjoying the trend and I’ll miss it once it’s over.