Directed by Oliver Stone, this combination of fictional characters involved in the historical events of 1980-81 in El Salvador follows a war reporter, his hippy friend, and a war photographer attempting to cover violent politics during a civil war in a poor country.
A newsreel shows people killed on the steps of a capital. A news broadcast reports that 18 political demonstrators were killed by the police at the national cathedral and at foreign embassies that were occupied by the protestors. In two months more than three thousand people have disappeared. Left-wing politicians blame the right-wing death squads for most of the killing, but the right-wingers blame the guerrillas who oppose the government.
Richard Boyle (James Woods) is in bed listening to this news report. He hears a knock, and his wife (Maria Rubell) asks if he has money for her. He argues with the Latino man demanding the rent, and Boyle says he is disturbing his kid. Boyle picks up the child while his wife in her slip cries and closes the door after the man goes out. Boyle says, “Good morning,” and she cries that she has had it.
Boyle uses a pay phone to call Nancy and asks for a new press card so that he can go to El Salvador and cover the breaking news. She gives reasons why she will not trust him, and he tells what he has accomplished in various wars. A woman wanting to use the phone interrupts him, and Nancy has hung up. Boyle calls Larry and thanks him for fixing his camera. He asks for $500 to go to El Salvador. Larry tells him to meet him at Pan Am in forty minutes.
Boyle drives fast in San Francisco and is stopped by a policewoman who says his license is expired, and he has outstanding tickets for speeding. She arrests him.
Doctor Rock (James Belushi) bails Boyle out of jail. Boyle says he needs $75 to get his old car out.
In the car Rock says his girlfriend said he is too old to be a disc jockey anymore; she wants him to sell computers. Boyle says he does not like yuppie women either. Boyle says Latin women are much better, and Doc agrees. Boyle says he was evicted, and Doc says he gave him the last of his money.
At a pound Doc asks for his dog, and the woman says that they put his dog to sleep. He asks when he will wake up and accuses her of murdering his dog. He says that relationship lasted longer than his marriage.
Boyle with Doc finds a note on the apartment door from his Italian girlfriend, and he realizes she went back to Italy with the baby. He finds the refrigerator is empty. He hopes she will be back.
On the road Boyle tells Doc they are going to Guatemala where it is cheap. His car has TV on the front window. Boyle tells him about how he covered the war in El Salvador. Doc says he thought they were going to Guatemala. Boyle says he will love it and that this is his last chance. He says the surfing is the best, and you can live there on $300 a year. Doc looks in the glove compartment and asks what the new watches are for. Boyle says they come in handy. He tells Doc how cheap the prostitutes are there. They see soldiers on the road, and Doc asks why they are blocking the road. Boyle tells him to get rid of his shit and throws his liquor bottle away. They see the remains of a soldier burning and peasants sitting by the road. A civilian with a rifle signals for them to stop and searches the car while another questions Boyle who gives him a watch from Col. Figueroa. The civilian finds a paper and says they are journalists. Boyle says no; but they make them get out of the car and lean on the front of the car. Boyle tells Doc not to get on the ground. An army lieutenant (Juan Fernandez) in a jeep calls to them, and they go over to him. Boyle admits he is a journalist and says he is a friend of Figueroa. They get in the jeep with three soldiers.
They stop in the city where people are lying in the street while soldiers check them. Boyle says they are checking for cedulas. Boyle and Doc get out, and Boyle says being a student is the worst thing one can be. They are put in an armored tank, and Doc says he will never bail him out of jail again. They hear a shot, and Doc says they are going to kill them. Boyle tells him to be cool.
Later Doc asks Boyle if he has any more tranquilizers. They are taken out at night and walk to a building with the lieutenant. Col. Julio Figueroa (Jorge Luke) comes out and hugs Boyle, and they shake hands. The lieutenant leaves, and Figueroa tells them to wash up. Three women help them clean up, and Doc is happy.
Boyle drives his car with Doc and says there is nothing to worry about. Doc is afraid he has a venereal disease, and Boyle takes him to an old women who sticks a needle in his butt.
A soldier tells Boyle he cannot park his car on a bridge. Boyle moves it and finds Maria (Elpidia Carrillo) with women washing clothes in a river. She has a baby girl and says she heard he was dead. She asks if he is still drunk and crazy, but he says he gave up alcohol for her. He kisses her and picks up the baby. He gives her little boy a TV and puts him in his car. She says he has another woman in the north, but he says that ended and persuades her to get in the car with her baby.
At a hut on the beach Boyle and Marie are lying naked in a hamac holding each other and kiss. Doc comes in with the boy and points to Maria, saying he could use one of those. The boy has a camera, and Doc shares some Guatemala gold with him; but this upsets Maria.
In the car Doc asks Boyle to pay him so that they can separate.
At a café Boyle finds the photographer John Cassady (John Savage) and commends him for his Newsweek cover. Boyle says they were stopped by Major Max’s boys, and Doc is concerned that he is after him. Doc says he is going to leave on the first plane, and he demands the money Boyle owes him. Boyle says they had to pay for gas and at the border. Now they have only 12 colones left. Doc finds out that is worth only $3 and gets angry. Boyle shows him a bottle of liquor that costs only 17 cents. Doc gets up and leaves. Boyle asks John to help him, but he says there is no work there. He says they are shooting at them. John calls Boyle’s car the “death-mobile.” Boyle asks if he wants to go out on a dawn patrol, and John smiles and agrees.
At a dump Boyle and John are taking pictures of dead bodies that are strewn on the side of a mountain. John talks about what makes great photographers. One needs to get more than the bodies but also why they died. John says you have to get close to get the truth; but if you get too close, you die. He hopes that someday he will get a great picture. Boyle says he has to go. John reminds him he has to watch himself. John says he will talk to Alvarez and Tom Kelly. Boyle knows Kelly and says he is a good man.
In a tent a woman is looking at a book of photos of the dead and recognizes her man. Boyle tells Doc that people come there to find out about the disappeared. Boyle sees a woman he knows, and she points him to Ramon. Boyle reminds him of a story he did on him last year and asks for his help. Ramon says there are 10,000 disappeared, and the list keeps growing. Boyle gives him the shots he took and hopes they will help him. Carmen tells him to come back next week, and she will try to help him. Boyle talks to a white woman he knows and to Cathy Moore (Cindy Gibb). She laughs and asks if he came to see his old girlfriends. He says she ruined that by converting them. Cathy gets upset that the artificial limb is the wrong piece. Doc shows boys different hand shakes.
On TV Reagan speaks about the aims of the guerrillas in Central America. Doc asks Boyle if he is depressed that the idiot is going to be President of the US. Boyle tells Doc to stay out of his face. At an embassy garden party Boyle shakes hands with the State Department analyst Jack Morgan (Colby Chester) and with Col. Bentley Hyde Sr. (Will MacMillan), asking if he remembers him from Vietnam. Boyle is introduced to Bob Samuels of US AID and to a woman from the AFL-CIO, and he shakes their hands too. Hyde says he remembers that Thieu kicked Boyle out, but Boyle says that Thieu got kicked out too. Hyde says he never could understand why Boyle liked the Commies. Boyle says he has not applied for Vietnamese citizenship, and the Hyde laughs with Boyle about the funny stuff they smoke over there. Boyle asks Hyde for a favor, and he asks what is in it for him. Doc asks a female soldier if this is like Vietnam. She says she is too young for that and that she is not supposed to talk to the press; she tells him to f--- off.
Morgan asks Boyle to let him see his photographs first. Morgan warns him that they will take this country and may get to Texas. Boyle asks him to loan him $50. Morgan introduces Boyle to Ambassador Thomas Kelly (Michael Murphy). Boyle says he was the last journalist out of Cambodia and that he is a friend of Cathy Moore. He asks Kelly if Reagan is going to pose problems for them and takes his picture. Boyle is handed a drink as Kelly walks on.
By the pool Boyle, Doc, and John are sitting at a table with other Americans. Doc asks TV reporter Pauline Axelrod (Valerie Wildman) what her sign is, and she says, “Stop.” He says he thought it was “Slippery when wet.” Boyle says she is full of shit, and they resent each other. He says a kid was shot in the head because he did not have his cedula, but she did not analyze the situation correctly. He asks what kind of democracy it is if people have to vote, and if they don’t vote, they may be killed. She says he would not last two weeks with a network, and he puts down her two weeks in El Salvador. Doc puts some LSD in her wine. Boyle calls her the “blow-job queen of New York” and says that is how she gets her jobs. As she is walking off, he admits he is an “asshole.” Doc tells him that he put acid in her drink. While trying to report for TV Pauline cannot stop giggling.
At night trucks of men with guns ride in the streets as guns are fired in celebration of Reagan’s election.
At a banquet presidential candidate and former Director of Salvadoran Intelligence Major Max Casanova (Tony Plana) stands at the head of the table and says finally they have someone in the White House who will help the former members of ORDEN and brothers of the mano blanco (white hand) against the priests who will be the first to bleed. He says Archbishop Romero is the worst and will be the first to die. For every death of one of them they will kill one hundred. He names the subversives who will die for selling out their country. The men applaud. He criticizes the journalists who have been sent there. He asks who will rid him of Romero, and several men stand up. Max points at one, goes to him, says he will be famous, and kisses his cheeks.
In a TV ad Max says he stands for nationalism, the church, family, and peace. At a beach restaurant Boyle, Maria, and Doc are eating and drinking. Boyle talks to a young American and asks him for a loan. The man tells him not to tell Elena and gives him the loan. On TV Max cuts open a watermelon, saying they are green on the outside but Moscow red on the inside. Maria objects to drunk boys dancing, and Boyle hands her the baby. Boyle stands up and makes them sit down. He sees men looking at him and says it is getting dangerous there. An old woman says that it is similar to the mood before the massacre of 1932.
At night Doc calls to Boyle who warns him to stop drinking. They find the men sitting on Boyle’s car, and Doc tells them to get off. A boy slaps a man, and Boyle tries to calm things down. Boyle tells Doc to get in the car. A man grabs the boy, and Boyle gives them bottles of beer. Boyle persuades Doc to get in the car. A man stops Boyle who gives him his watch and drives the car in reverse.
The boy asks Boyle to drop him off, and Boyle asks where he is going and if he is going to join the guerrillas. The boy says there is no God any more as he goes.
At the house Maria tells Boyle that they took Doc and Carlos because they found marijuana. He tells her to stay in the house, and he will take care of it.
Police throw Doc on the ground at a jail and hold a gun to his head. Boyle and Cathy arrive, and he puts down the TV and offers them a new bottle of liquor. Cathy helps clear a path. The soldier says they are subversives because of the marijuana. Cathy gives him money and speaks Spanish while Boyle appeals to the captain. Boyle offers the TV, and Doc stands up and leaves. Boyle tries to get Carlos too, but he is kept behind bars.
Outside the American embassy protestors and guards clash while surrounding Boyle’s car.
Inside his office Kelly welcomes Cathy and Boyle who reminds him he wrote an article about him in Cambodia. Kelly says that was a terrible thing that happened and asks Boyle if he wrote they were the good guys. Boyle admits he was wrong about that as many were. Kelly warns that the rebels here are bad too; but Boyle asks if they are as bad as Major Max and the mano blanco. Kelly says both sides are killers. Boyle says no one seems to know anything about the boy. He complains that the kid is dying now, and Cathy tries to calm him down. He explains that he is the brother of his girlfriend. Kelly says she has to go back to her home town; but Boyle says if she goes there, she will be killed. Boyle asks what if he married her, and Cathy reminds him he is already married. Cathy thanks Kelly for his time, and Boyle asks for him to try immigration as they leave.
Doc and Maria are waiting outside, and Cathy and Boyle come out. Boyle tells Maria that the ambassador is involved. He warns her she is in danger because she does not have a cedula. He says he could marry her. She says he has a wife, and he says he got a divorce. Peter tells Boyle that Atlanta is giving him a show and warns him not to mess up this time. Boyle thanks him. Peter says he wants the real stuff on the guerrillas and Alvarez. He says there will be a press conference tomorrow. Peter says that Major Max is going to declare he is running for president. Peter has to go to Venezuela, and Boyle is to cover for him. Boyle asks him for a loan of $50. Peter says he never changes, gives him 200 colones, and tells him no whores. They part, and Boyle asks Maria her answer. She says no; she cannot marry a divorced man, and he is a bad Catholic. He asks how, and she says he sleeps with many women, he drinks, he smokes marijuana, and he lies. She asks what is good about him. He admits he is a weasel. He says he will confess and can become a lay Catholic worker.
Boyle drives with Maria and Doc, saying he feels better already. They approach the cathedral and see a large demonstration in the street. The lieutenant warns the leader Ramon that they have five minutes to leave. Soldiers march with rifles. Boyle and Maria go into the church.
Inside Boyle is confessing to a priest his many sins, but he believes he is a good-hearted person. He says he loves the woman and is willing to change for her. If God gives him this woman, then there must be a God. The priest asks him to change and tells him to make an act of contrition. Boyle says he should have come earlier before the 32 years, and the priest agrees. Boyle finds a place next to Maria as Archbishop Romero (Jose Carlos Ruiz) is preaching. He criticizes the army for repressing the people and defending the oligarchy. He has asked the United States to stop all military aid until the problems of the disappeared have been solved. He says the dictatorship violates human rights. He argues that when dialog ends, and it becomes unbearable, the church speaks of the right to insurrection. He says they are poor, but Washington is rich. He asks why they are so blind. He tells people to look to themselves, and he appeals to the army and the National Guard to be brothers to the people and stop killing them. Soldiers must obey the law of God not to kill. He begs them in the name of God to stop the repression. Three men in dark glasses nod to each other.
Maria and Boyle are given communion by Romero. The young man chosen by Major Max spits on Romero’s hands, pulls out a revolver, and shoots him three times in the chest. Romero falls on his back, and people panic and leave.
Shots are heard, and soldiers outside try to stop people from escaping. Boyle and Maria get through.
In the cathedral Ramon sees if Romero is dead, and the young officer arrests him for the murder. Soldiers take Ramon outside while John says, “No.”
Outside Boyle stops a taxi, and Maria and Doc get in. The taxi pulls away, leaving Boyle behind. Soldiers put Ramon in the back of a station-wagon which departs with civilians carrying guns. John is held by soldiers.
At an Arena rally Major Max gives a speech to a few well dressed people while men with rifles stand on rooftops. He says he did not agree with Romero and that he did not understand that with the left in power there would be no church in El Salvador. He says the subversives killed him. Boyle shouts a question, asking if he is the head of the death squads. Max says he resents the question and denies there are death squads. Pauline asks if he can capture the Catholics and the women’s vote. Boyle calls that a bullshit question, and he tries to question Gomez; but men keep him away by force. Gomez threatens Boyle angrily. Max looks at Boyle’s press credential and walks past him.
Boyle with John drives his car. He stops and asks Doc who says they found Carlos. Boyle and John find his body, and John takes pictures. The nuns are calling them monsters and demand his burial.
At the beach-house Maria is packing. Boyle arrives and says it was not his fault. She is angry and avoids him. John gives Boyle a drink. He says she and the kids are the only decent thing he ever had.
Boyle and John go out at night, and Boyle is drunk. Doc tells a hooker he can only give her ten. Cathy is giving a woman a shot in the rear. At the bar Doc orders drinks, and Boyle tells him what he said by mistake in Spanish. Cathy gives Boyle a new bottle of liquor, and he tells her to sit down and kisses her. He asks her to talk to Maria and Father Paul. She says he is old enough to be her father and should forget her. She asks him about his other wife. She says that if he brought Maria back to the US, she would be a fish out of water. He does not have money to support her. She says he is not making it as a journalist. He says the altar boy is dead, and the peace corps has moved out. He loves it there, and she does too. She says she has to take two nuns to the airport tomorrow. He warns her to be careful on the road. He sees the lieutenant who has been listening. Cathy wishes him merry Christmas and leaves on her motorcycle. The lieutenant and men with guns surround Boyle. He pulls a knife and says they will have to kill him. A man knocks him down, and he hits a man back. The lieutenant is hit and pulls his revolver, threatening to take his arms, legs, and balls. John with his camera and Doc with a broken bottle appear behind the lieutenant and warn him. John asks him for a photograph and takes some. The young officer tells Boyle he will be back for him and leaves with his men.
At night Cathy, the two nuns, and a lay woman get in a van and drive at night. They are stopped by a siren, and Cathy says they have done nothing. Men in civilian clothes grab the women and rape them on the ground. After that a man with a machine gun aims it at Cathy and cocks it.
In the day men have dug up the bodies, and John takes pictures. Kelly is horrified, and a woman tells him that she heard that five guards did it and got a mayor to sign the death certificates. He tells her to tell him he had no business signing death certificates, and he demands an autopsy now. He wants to know if the bullets are rebel or government. Pauline talks to Boyle and says it could have been an exchange of gunfire. Boyle looks at her as if she is crazy. The mayor makes an excuse, and Kelly goes to Hyde and says he is going to recommend cutting off all aid immediately. Hyde says they were Communist-oriented, and Kelly does not believe they packed pistols. Kelly says he knew Cathy Moore and will not buy that shit. Hyde says that General Garcia promised a thorough investigation. Kelly says he is not stupid, and he knows about how the Reagan transition team came down there and did not check in with him and met with Major Max. Kelly says it will go in his report, and he accuses him of giving the wrong signal that resulted in this. Boyle prays over Cathy’s body and puts his ring on her finger.
In the mountains John, Boyle, and others are walking with the guerrillas. They come to a meadow where men are being trained to fight.
Commandant Marti uses a map and explains their final offensive against the government. John asks when, and he says before Reagan. Boyle asks if they can pull it off, and Marti says the will of the people cannot be changed even by the North Americans. John and Boyle take photos of the guerrillas. They say goodbye and begin walking back.
In the embassy garden at a table Col. Hyde and Morgan are disappointed by the photographs, and Boyle will not tell them where they were taken. He says they have rifles but no anti-aircraft weapons. Boyle asks for cedulas for his wife and her two kids. Morgan asks about the rifles and RPGs. Bentley says they have evidence that this is not a civil war but Communist aggression. Boyle says they have been lying about that for a long time, and they have not presented any proof it is not a peasant revolution. He tells him not to tell him that after Vietnam and Chile because he was there. Hyde says he resents that. Boyle says they have been lying about the number of advisors and trainers there. They have moved humanitarian relief to the military, and they have lied that this can be won militarily. Morgan tells Boyle to calm down, and Hyde says he won’t listen to Commie crap. Morgan asks him what Marti said about the offensive; but Boyle says he is not a spy for them, and he is not a Communist. He says he loves his country too. He says they trained Major Max and the others. He says the death squads are the brainchild of the CIA. They let them wipe out the Catholic church and created a Frankenstein. Morgan asks about Castro and Cambodia. Boyle asks if they are trying to re-run Vietnam. He does not want to see another Vietnam. He says he lost his hearing in one ear over there. He believes in a constitution and human rights for everyone on the planet. He asks them to try to create a just society there. Morgan says they do good down there, and he examines his conscience. He says the alternative to their mistakes would be ten times worse. Boyle says he may forge the cedulas and lets them keep the photos. He walks away, but Hyde warns him the Salvadorans may make a lesson out of him. Hyde says he does not care if they kill Boyle because he hates his kind. Boyle says he sounds just like another gangster, and he will fit in there.
Pauline is interviewing American soldiers. She questions a colonel, who says they are not combat troops but only trainers authorized by Congress.
Doc tells Boyle that Maria still cares about him. They are drinking, and Wilma comes up and kisses Doc. He pays the bill and says he is going shopping with her. Boyle asks about the money, and Doc says she had a long career. John finds Boyle and asks if he has his wheels. Boyle says he has to make a stop.
Boyle parks the car at the beach-house, gets out, and goes to Maria. They make love, and he leaves.
Boyle parks the car in a town, and he and John cover fighting in the street opposite the National Guard building. John holds up a white cloth and says they are journalists. They make it to the side of the soldiers and take cover behind sandbags. Peasants arrive on horses, and they take pictures. Soldiers surrender.
Kelly is looking at a report, and Hyde and Morgan try to persuade him to order the embassy evacuated. Morgan asks Kelly if he wants to go down in history as the man who lost El Salvador; but Kelly says that is not the issue.
Guerrillas are fighting in the city. They come into an office and kill the lieutenant who was shooting at them.
Hyde tells Kelly he has to make a decision. Kelly gives in and says he will recommend the restoration of all military aid, and they can release the armor and fuel at Ilopango. Morgan makes a call.
Tanks and trucks are used in the streets. A woman on a horse says tanks are coming. Figueroa is coming and must not be allowed to pass.
John tells Boyle one of his cameras is damaged. Boyle sees a woman executing soldiers, and he says they have become just like them. John gets a photo of a woman shooting a captured officer.
People run in the streets. Men on horses are turned away by a tank, and many are killed. John and Boyle take photos. Soldiers use machine guns and a helicopter. People are running. They see an airplane approaching, but Boyle’s camera is jammed. John stands in the street and photographs the plane as it hits him with bullets. Boyle goes to help him and is shot by a machine gun from the helicopter. He sees that John is having trouble breathing because of the blood. Boyle uses a knife to cut a hole in his throat so that he can breathe. John says he got the shot and asks him to take it to New York. Boyle says he will and takes the film. He says John got the magic shot. John dies.
In a hospital a doctor is treating Boyle’s wound in his side, and he complains about his dirty hands. Doc comes in with Maria and says Bruja got cedulas for Maria and the kids. He also gives Boyle a forged exit visa. Doc says they have to get out of there because they know that Boyle is in the country illegally.
Boyle, Maria, Doc, and her kids are in his old car on a highway and come to the Guatemala border. Doc says goodbye because he is staying. At the crossing an officer looks at their documents and calls the Jefe at the customs shed. He says it is fake, and Boyle shows his press card with Newsweek. He says he is important. Jefe calls the capital, and Boyle gives the other officer his watch. They go to the car but are brought back, and he is hit in the mouth. Doc tries to call the American embassy. Jefe says Boyle made trouble for Gomez who wants him dead. They take his film and expose each roll. Boyle gets angry and says it is the best war film. Doc talks on the phone that Boyle is about to be killed.
Kelly is about to get on a plane but is called back.
Two men drag Boyle on to an old bus. Boyle tells Jefe that he has $50,000 in traveler’s check two kilometers from there. They say he is lying.
Kelly on the phone threatens them that he will make their day the worst ever if they do not release them.
They hold a rifle to Boyle’s head when a man comes in and says something that stops them.
They are siting around drinking, and Boyle shows him how he hid film in the heel of his shoe.
At the border of the United States an officer asks Boyle where they have been, and he says they just went to Nogales for the day. They are allowed to enter.
On a bus Boyle is sitting next to Maria, and he says they are going to be okay. The bus stops in the desert, and two immigration officers come on for a routine check. An officer asks for Maria’s identification, and she says she has nothing. Boyle says she was his assistant in El Salvador. They order her to get up and tell him to sit down. Maria says she will go. She leaves with her two children. Boyle says if they send her back, they will rape and kill her. He says they do not know what it is like in El Salvador. The officer arrests Boyle too, and they search him. Another car leaves with Maria and her children. They put Boyle in the other car
The epilog states that the murderers of Archbishop Romero have not been found, and the same military leaders are in power in El Salvador which continues to receive much military aid from the United States.
This war drama depicts violent repression in a poor country by the right-wing government which appeals to the United States for military aid. Courageous journalists, nuns, and others try to help and reveal what is occurring. After the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the election of Reagan, the war escalated for several years. The flawed journalist is compared to those who seem to have more pure lives but are on the side of the murderers, showing that life is complicated and that the wealthy have ways to make it seem like the poor are usually in the wrong.