DVD Review of
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/12/06
Lost in the glare of Michael Moore’s 2004 pseudo-documentary Fahrenheit 911 was independent filmmaker John Sayles’ far more incisive filmic take on politics called Silver City. While Moore’s film was a frontal assault on the George W. Bush administration, Sayles’ film was less a jab at Right Wing politics, although it clearly was, and more an assault on the sliminess of politics in general. I was surprised at how good the film was, considering all the negative reviews it got from critics. Is it a great film, in league with Sayles’ best? No. But it’s light years beyond typical Hollywood fare- especially bigger budgeted films like the Clinton era’s Wag The Dog.
The film it most resembles is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, although set in contemporary Colorado, and this film having a lighter feel- in terms of the cinematography and humor. Basically, a bumbling George W. Bush like character named Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), who has a history of DWI’s and is a Born Again Christian (in name only), scion of a powerful Colorado political clan (think the Bushes meet the Coorses) headed by his Senator father (Michael Murphy), is running for the governorship, and is being guided by a Karl Rove-like political guru named Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss). The film opens as they are shooting a political commercial at a Colorado lake, and Pilager accidentally reels in the body of a dead illegal immigrant Mexican. Raven then hires a detective agency to see if Pilager’s political opponents are behind this. Enter Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a disgraced newspaper reporter now working as an investigator. Huston, from the famed film clan, gives a terrifically understated but realistic performance, worthy of Oscar consideration, and is advised to investigate Pilager enemies, and give them a warning. While initially working for the Pilager campaign he soon discovers that the web of Pilager financial connections may have been behind the death of the illegal, whose name is Lazaro Huerta. The film basically bounces back and forth between Danny’s investigations of Pilager enemies, and Pilager’s campaign’s web of connections- including the financial clout of a soft spoken but deadly billionaire named Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), who bailed Dickie out of a poor real estate investment, and now pulls his strings on a planned community scam called Silver City. It seems that Dickie is ‘user-friendly’ to Big Business interests. His family has been so since the grandfather founded the dynasty in the Gilded Age, making their money in mining, and now heading up a manure and waste disposal industry.
The film is well-paced, and there are loads of great dialogue scenes that never get too preachy, even though writer-director Sayles is clearly a liberal. The scenes with Ralph Waite, as a mine inspector named Casey Lyle, who was crushed by Benteen when he stood up for safety codes, are excellent, conveying both optimism, and the relentless crush of it by the rich and powerful. Miguel Ferrer is excellent as Cliff Castleton, an enemy of Raven’s and a Right Wing radio talk show host in the Sean Hannity mold, who hates the Pilagers, and says the only reason he doesn’t savage Dickie is because he’s ‘running against a known communist.’ Billy Zane plays a roguish political lobbyist, named Chandler, who cares about no one but himself, and his girlfriend Nora, played by Maria Bello, who is Danny O’Brien’s ex-girlfriend, provide nice secondary plot arcs that don’t get too schmaltzy with the romance. Sal Lopez, as chef Tony Guerra, who worked for Danny, investigating the Mexicans involved in Huerta’s death, also gives a very good and realistic performance. Other actors like Thora Burch and Tim Roth are good in tiny roles. What sets Sayles apart from most off the rack Hollywood directors is the freedom he allows his actors to heighten his words with body language great and small. Every scene conveys intrigue, even if the dialogue is very every day. A particularly good example of this comes in a brief scene with Dickie Pilager’s sister Maddy (Daryl Hannah) and Danny. After seducing him, after finding out she’s being investigated by him, and turning the tables, her illegitimate black son and her a share a moment that is heightened by the fact we have learned that she wanted to have an abortion as a teenager.
By film’s end we find out that the death was an accident, and only the fact of the dead man’s immigration status was why his body was dumped in a Benteen cave, loaded with toxins, that washed out into the lake where Dickie hooked it. The film ends with the Pilager campaign steaming on to victory, Danny and Nora finding their way back to each other, after they’ve both been steamrolled by the Benteen machine, and then the last few minutes tank, with the lake behind a Pilager campaign photo op suddenly filling up with fish corpses that rise to the surface. This is such an error in a film that is so deftly written. Could Sayles have really been so distrustful of his audience? It’s a shame. That’s because without it this film would rank with some of his recent stellar work, like Sunshine State or Casa De Los Babys.
As for the DVD, it comes with a trailer, and a making of featurette that is standard issue. The commentary for the film, with Sayles and his long time producer Maggie Renzi, is also nothing special. There are some good moments here and there, and it does focus more on the art of filmmaking rather than the politics and intent of the film. Renzi declares that they were taping the commentary on Election Day, 2004, and that she believes the good guys (i.e.- the Kerry-Edwards ticket) will win. She was wrong, but most of what she and Sayles did on this film was right. It’s a shame that this film was swamped by so many other screechy films, such as Fahrenheit 911 and Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ, for it deserved it, despite its bad ending. The best thing about Sayles is that he is unpredictable- save that he writes and directs stellar adult dramas, and given his last several films, that aspect of his work seems to be in no danger of diminishing.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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