Alibi V.13 No.38 • Sept 16-22, 2004 

Film Review

Silver City

Sayles' latest walks the line between political commentary and pointed comedy

Silver City

Directed by John Sayles

Cast: John Huston, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, Kris Kristofferson


“Washington”--meaning, the general political power structure in America--has long accused “Hollywood”--meaning, the entertainment industry as a whole--of being a nest of potty-mouthed, sex-crazed, tree-hugging liberals. This year, it seems that Hollywood has finally risen to the challenge, unleashing a barrage of unabashedly anti-conservative, Republican-bashing rhetoric. From laser-guided documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Control Room, Persons of Interest and Bush's Brain to agitprop fiction like The Manchurian Candidate to Green Party fantasies like The Day After Tomorrow, summer movie screens are awash with left-wing indignation. Heck, even M. Night Shyamalan's crummy The Village could be viewed as a heavily cloaked parable about Tom Ridge's reign of terror.

Now, indie auteur John Sayles (Return of the Seacaucus 7, Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lone Star, Sunshine State) has thrown his hat into the political ring, rushing out a patently partisan attack on the presidency, oh-so-thinly hidden under the guise of fictional entertainment. Silver City, an ensemble-cast drama/comedy in the old Robert Altman mode, lies somewhere between the dense conspiratorial murder mystery of Chinatown and the pointed political humor of an Al Franken routine.

Chris Cooper (Lone Star, Seabiscuit) starts the lengthy cast list off as Dickie Pilager, a sincere but dimwitted neo-con politico. (I wonder who that's supposed to be.) Seems Dickie is running for governor of Colorado under the auspices of his filthy rich father, Sen. Judson Pilager, who knows Dickie is a bumbler and has surrounded him with a sizable staff of “advisors.”

“Damn. Looks like Condi Rice went nuts and beat another male prostitute to death.”
“Damn. Looks like Condi Rice went nuts and beat another male prostitute to death.”

While on a campaign stop/photo op showing off the pristine beauty of Colorado's lakes (which Pilager, of course, wants to auction off to developers), the Boy Who Would Be Governor stumbles across a dead body. Fearing an ugly smear campaign by rivals, Dickie's staff rushes the candidate out of there, clamps down on the press and hires a detective agency to figure out where this body came from.

The task of hunting down the history behind this inopportune corpse falls to disgraced journalist-turned-gumshoe Danny O'Brien (relative unknown Danny Huston, son of famed director John Huston). Over the course of his investigation, Danny runs into a who's who of guest stars (including Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah, Richard Dreyfuss, Miguel Ferrar, Billy Zane, Tim Roth and Thora Birch). Although the corpse doesn't seem to have been planted by Dickie Pilager's political rivals, it could be loosely connected to a shady land deal brokered by Pilager and his corporate pals/overlords.

In due time, Danny's jaded journalistic tendencies come back to the surface and he sees an opportunity to nail some people in power with “The Truth” (whatever that may be). Naturally, this doesn't sit too well with the people who hired him.

Like Chinatown, Silver City is a twisty tale that requires quite a bit of attention to navigate. Among its many topics are corporate corruption, the electoral system, political advertising, muckraking journalism, the environment, immigration and labor policies. Needless to say, it's a lot to cover. Talky and extremely partisan, the film feels like it's only interested in preaching to the converted--which is pretty much its biggest drawback. Longtime Kerry backers, Prius drivers and ... well, Michael Moore will all get a hearty self-righteous chuckle out of the film. Although the film goes out of its way to avoid mentioning any political parties, Republicans will hate it, knowing full well who its ire is aimed at. Those few Americans left sitting on the undecided fence are likely to view it as strident as the recent political bickering over which candidate was a bigger wuss during Vietnam.

The film does have some high points, mostly in the acting department. Richard Dreyfuss plays his amoral political advisor a bit too broadly and Billy Zane has never met a role he couldn't overact; still, the cast is colorful and clearly having a grand old time. Huston makes for a dependable “everyman” character. Cooper does an obvious, but mighty entertaining George W. imitation, complete with mangled “Bushisms.” Daryl Hannah continues her fiery string of screen cameos as Dickie's wild child sibling. (Who needs teenybopper sex queens like Xtina with fortysomethings like Daryl Hannah steaming up the big screen?) Maria Bello (Coyote Ugly, The Cooler) continues to impress as Danny's ex-fiancée, a journalist on the verge of selling out to corporate America. The more I see of Maria, the more I like her.

Silver City is, ultimately, too belabored to count as one of Sayles' best. But, in a year full of divisive political bickering, it more than captures the zeitgeist with a touch of humor and a dash of mystery. It's funnier than the Republican National Convention, more intriguing than the Democratic National Convention and slightly shorter than both.