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September 19, 2004

Silver City

John Sayles' Silver City (IMDB) has been describd as the latest entry in the Bush-bashing film cycle, and while that sentiment is certainly there, the film operates more effectively as an Altmanesque satire of politics through the detective genre. The film also ends with one of the most interesting final shots I've seen all year (I'm finding it hard to describe without giving anything away, but that shot alone was worth the price of admission for me).

Chris Cooper, playing the Bush-like Dickie Pilager, a canddiate for governor in Colorado, appears more as a cipher, almost devoid of personality. You get the usual jokes ("he's a big picture guy;" "he doesn't read much"), and Dickie Pilager, like George W. Bush, comes from a prominent political family and has ties to mysterious wealthy businessmen (including the CEO of "Bentel," rather than Bechtel). Dickie is shepherded by a controlling campaign chief, Chuck Raven, who might remind you of a certain Bush administration official. But if the film had remained firmly within this level of satire, I'm not sure that I would have enjoyed it, and it would have had little to say about American politics. Instead, Silver City focuses on a murder mystery plot, allowing Sayles to unearth many of the contradictions--race, social class, citizenship, etc--that cannot be reconciled very easily.

During the film's opening sequence, we see Pilager filming a campaign advertisement meant to convey his commitment to the environment. He's supposed to be fishing in a shimmering lake, perfectly framed by the mountains behind him, while wearing the LL Bean clothes that make him look like an everyday guy. While filming the commercial, Dickie's fishing line accidentally hooks a corpse, and the nervous Chuck Raven quickly leaps into action, getting Pilager away from the scene to avoid the appearance of scandal. He then hires Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston in his first leading role), a typically down-on-his-luck detective, to conspicuously follow three people who might try to fabricate a scandal for the candidate just a few weeks before the election.

Danny is a former reporter, someone who was committed to the kind of investigative reporting that now seems lost. He refers back to the Big Story he'd uncovered, but then when the newspaper went public, his anonymous sources backed down or disappeared, the newspaper got sued, and he was fired. There's an interesting sequence early in the film when Danny goes to the darkly-lit office of his former editor, who now runs an underground internet newspaper, with several post-hippie employees working as reporters. This news source contrasts with the commercial newspaper where Nora, Danny's ex, works. Nora struggles to be critical of Pilager's campaign, but because she is dispatched out to watch Pilager repeat the same stump speech over and over again, she has no real opportunity for true reporting. Perhpas making things more troubling, she's engaged to a prominent state lobbyist for a real estate group. While it's not the major concern of the film, these sequences offer an important critique of much of the media coverage of American politics.

Danny visits each of the three people he's supposed to "investigate," first meeting with a conservative shock radio host who thinks that Pilager is too liberal. He then talks to a mining engineer who knows that Silver City, a planned community, is being built on an abandoned mine filed with toxic chemicals. Finally, he talks to Dickie's sister (well played by Daryl Hannah), the family's black sheep daughter who smokes pot and trains for the Olympic archery team. In trying to put all of the pieces together, Danny begins mapping the story out, literally drawing the connections between the major players on his living room wall, allowing Danny to "map" the relationships between the media, politics, law enforcement, water rights, and real estate, creating the image of an informal conspiracy (some of these connections also reminded me of Polanski's Chinatown, another film that uses the detective plot in a similar way). By "informal," I mean that many of these connections are only loosely articulated and that there is no official puppet master pulling the strings.

This is where Silver City reminds me of Altman's "big" films with dozens of characters and multiple subplots, but as with Sayles' City of Hope and Lone Star (two of the most underrated films of the 1990s in my opinion), these connections serve to underscore some of the contradictions of social class, race, and citizenship in the United States. These contradictions become most evident when Danny discovers that the person found in the lake was an illegal immigrant from Mexico, exploited as cheap labor, and that all of the witnesses who could talk about the crime would not be protected if they spoke out against the criminals.

Like many of Sayles' films, especially Lone Star and Limbo, Silver City's ending is one of the film's major strengths. I won't say anything else about it above the fold, but to me it presents one of the major interpretive challenges of the film. Some possible spoilers below the fold.

The film ends, as it begins, with a photo opportunity, Pilager giving a speech on the same bucolic lake where he hooked the corpse at the beginning of the film. In this photo shoot, Pilager is giving a speech in front of some hastily built bleachers with police officers in one section and a high school sports team and cheerleading squad in the other. The shot conveys just how carefully managed these campaign appearances actually are, and then, as the camera glides out over the lake, we see the corpse of a fish slowly rise to the surface of the lake, killed by the toxic chemicals that are seeping into it from the nearby abandoned mine. Gradually, another fish surfaces, and then as the camera tracks back further from the lake, we see dozens of fish floating on the surface. It's an amazingly cynical shot, a satire of the American political system that allows such inequalities to persist. If I had one criticism of the film, however, it might be that the film offers few, if any, alternatives to this cynicism and resignation. Danny and Nora end up together, but their reunion seems almost completely wrapped up in their shared resignation, their exhaustion in combatting the corruption they have witnessed.

Posted by chuck at September 19, 2004 11:36 AM

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Thanks for the review. The reviews on rottentomatoes.com were unflattering, but you've made me want to see this film. I agree that Lone Star deserves much more attention. Sunshine State is the only other Sayles film I've seen, and it was good but not as fascinating as Lone Star.

Posted by: Chris Martin at September 20, 2004 11:27 AM

Thanks, Chris. Silver City isn't perfect. It's a little "talky," and some of Sayles' observations are obvious, but overall, it's a thoughtful, entertaining film.

Posted by: chuck at September 21, 2004 1:25 PM

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