Film Reviews: Wednesday, September 15, 2004
Vote for Dickie! Chris Cooper tries not to trip on his words in ‘Silver City.’
Silver City
Starring Chris Cooper and Danny Huston. Written and directed by John Sayles. Rated R.
This State Is Mine

John Sayles bashes Bush and has a Rocky (Mountain) time in Silver City.


Dickie Pilager is running for governor of Colorado. The scion of one of the state’s oldest families (which really means their money goes back the furthest), he’s the son of a United States senator and the grandson of a self-made businessman. He’s obviously not too bright and tends to be flummoxed by the English language — we first see him filming a campaign commercial, and when he’s called on to deliver his lines while pretending to cast a fishing line for the camera, doing both things at once proves to be too much for his brain to handle. His own father says satirically, “I’d like to see him in the Senate slogging through an appropriations bill. He never was much of a reader.” Still, Dickie’s leading in the polls because he exudes an aw-shucks kind of charm that appeals to moderate-to-right-wing voters. The business community loves him because he believes whatever they tell him and thus will give them whatever they want. He’s not a bad person, just an empty suit. Or rather, this being Colorado, an empty outfit consisting of a blue shirt, denim jeans, and a bolo tie.

Dickie is a fictional character played by Chris Cooper in John Sayles’ latest film Silver City, but it’s clear who he’s really supposed to be. The Bush-bashing act is now a hot thing in movies, from The Day After Tomorrow to Robert Greenwalt’s homemade documentaries, Outfoxed and the upcoming Uncovered. If I didn’t already detest the administration for a variety of reasons, I’d vote for John Kerry just to give the filmmaking crowd a different target. Silver City has enough dramatic substance to make it appeal to moviegoers regardless of their politics, though it’s rather unspectacular by the standards of other Sayles movies.

The main character is not Dickie but Danny (Danny Huston), a disgraced former journalist turned private investigator. His firm is hired by the Pilager people after Dickie hooks a dead man’s corpse while shooting that aforementioned commercial. Danny’s sent to warn Pilager enemies that they’re being watched, and through his eyes we glimpse a typically Saylesian panorama of characters in all walks of life who’ve been Pilaged. Much as he did with Cooper in Lone Star, Sayles gives his lead role to an actor whose talent is belied by his relatively light résumé — if you’ve seen Huston anywhere, it was probably his brief turn as Naomi Watts’ doomed husband in 21 Grams. The tousled Huston, who looks slightly haggard despite his paunchy physique, gives a quietly terrific performance as a sellout with a nagging conscience, a guy who tends to blurt out uncomfortable truths while making small talk.

Sayles draws the connections between corrupt mining interests, illegal alien workers, and real estate developers who, besides being responsible for the dead man in the lake, allow a guy like Dickie to come to power. All this is enlightening, but it’s also much less exciting than it sounds. If not for Sayles’ typically deft handling of his actors, this movie would be dreadfully dull. Cooper is effectively polished and vacuous; Daryl Hannah brings a touch of unpredictability to Dickie’s sad, screwed-up sister; Ralph Waite lends authority to the part of a mining engineer who’s outraged at the Pilagers’ disregard for the environment; Sal Lopez does yeoman work as a restaurant chef who becomes Danny’s entry into the world of Mexican immigrants. There’s a bit of casting worth noting: Michael Murphy (Jack Tanner himself!) plays Dickie’s dad. Funniest and scariest of all is Miguel Ferrer as a calmly psychotic right-wing radio talk-show host who’s on the Pilager hit list — when he threatens to bust Danny’s nose, you distinctly sense that he really would do it right where they’re standing, in the middle of the station’s office.

Sayles, who has made an effort to set each of his American movies in different states, makes good use of the gorgeous Colorado scenery to bring home his point about the environment. However, he’s misgauged the political climate of his chosen state here; he ignores the enclaves of liberalism in Denver, Boulder, and Aspen. This movie would have been truer to life if it were set in Arizona or New Mexico.

A more severe flaw is that Sayles’ political convictions overwhelm his artistic touch, especially at the movie’s end, when we see dead fish bobbing to the surface of a lake by the thousands while “America the Beautiful” plays on the soundtrack. You can imagine Michael Moore seeing this and thinking that it’s too much. The whole movie is a tug-of-war between Sayles’ impulses to explain the workings of the world in laborious detail and his dramatic instincts to create rewarding roles for a large ensemble cast. The two sides end up battling to a stalemate here. Too bad. Our entertainment culture is such now that many Americans depend on late-night talk-show hosts and other satirists for their news, and Sayles’ serious-minded approach could have been a useful corrective. Sadly, you walk away from Silver City wishing that he’d lighten up a little.

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