September 19, 2004
It bashes Bush, opens eyes to social, political decay
By Connie Ogle
Dickie Pilager is campaigning to become governor of a western state. He is a member of the privileged class with a couple of DUIs in his past, the clueless son of a powerful politician. He nods when Dad's business cronies lecture him on what the United States needs but tends to sound like a moron when he's caught without a script or handler. (One of his more intelligent statements is ''Junior can't read if he's high on crack!'') Dickie doesn't stand for anything in particular; he's an empty vessel waiting to be filled and shaped by his wealthy and powerful supporters.
If this description sounds suspiciously familiar, congratulations. You're a Democrat. But John Sayles' latest film is more than a merciless excuse to bash George W. Bush, though bash him it does. Silver City also presents a thought-provoking and searing portrait of a country foundering in greed and cynicism, no longer a land of dreams but a nightmare of lapsed ethics and stinking moral rot. The poor are invisible; lobbyists rule; the environment is doomed; and even the free press, once a cornerstone of liberty, cares more about who ''bakes the best chocolate chip cookie'' than about exposing corruption.
Sociologically and politically, Sayles has always worn his heart on his sleeve. He's tackled some of Silver City’s themes before: political corruption (City of Hope); unscrupulous developers (Sunshine State); the hopelessness of illegal immigrants (Lone Star). Silver City is not so powerful as any of those films, and yet it's effective despite its ambivalent moral center, journalist-turned-investigator Danny O'Brien, who is played by an actor (Danny Huston) not quite up to the task.
Danny is called into action when Pilager (an amusing Chris Cooper, who first made an impression in Sayles' stunning Matewan), casting a fishing rod during the filming of a campaign ad, accidentally hooks a dead body. Pilager's manager (Richard Dreyfuss) wants Danny to sniff around and find out who the corpse is and inform Pilager's enemies that they'd better not be trying to discredit the candidate. But the investigation revives Danny's long-buried curiosity and shakes his complacency, much in the way Sayles hopes to shake ours.
Silver City, which gets its title from a dead Colorado mining town that developers hope to reinvigorate despite a few environmental hazards, blends sly humor with grand statement and talky opinion, and the mix works well. The cast is mostly terrific, particularly Miguel Ferrer as an angry conservative radio talk-show host who refuses to be bullied and Kris Kristofferson as Wes Benteen, the cold-eyed mogul who bankrolls the Pilager campaign. Sayles has abandoned the annoying conceit he used in Sunshine State – in which Alan King and a few golfing buddies acted as a Greek chorus to slam home his message – and lets his characters spout his ideology in a more natural way. When Benteen tells Danny that ''Americans don't have patience for the underdogs anymore,'' the cynicism hits home in an uncomfortable way.
Huston, unfortunately, is never really believable as a man rediscovering lost principles; he feels out of place in this otherwise fine ensemble. Danny makes no visceral connection with the audience – a trick Sayles characters usually accomplish effortlessly – and his romance with his journalist ex-girlfriend (Maria Bello) is so false you can feel the film grinding to a halt every time they share a scene. Her relationship with an unethical lobbyist (Billy Zane) smacks of lazy writing, a shame when the media presents so many more fruitful targets.
Despite its flaws, though, Silver City makes an interesting companion to City of Hope. In that film, an ambitious, starry-eyed councilman (Joe Morton) learns to accept the unhappy price of politics. Silver City takes that lesson one step further. Its unforgettable final image leaves us with the forlorn hope that the future will be better than Sayles envisions.