In his book Worse than Watergate, former Nixon legal aid John Dean expresses surprise at George W. Bush's ability to run a secretive and dishonest administration. After all, Nixon had the sort of ruthless intellect that made him truly Nixonian, whereas Bush seems a little too preoccupied with basic pronunciation to control a political machine anywhere near as frightening as his predecessor's.
This problem obviously bothered director John Sayles. The resulting film, Silver City, could easily have been a partisan riff during an election year. Instead, it stands as a powerful commentary on the state of the American political system.
While filming a campaign ad, bumbling, inarticulate, silver spoon-fed Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) discovers a dead body floating in a lake, prompting his campaign manager (Richard Dreyfus) to hire private investigator Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston) to make sense of the situation. O'Brien's search takes him through special interest groups, holding companies, environmental atrocities and a murder or two, leading him right back to Pilager's campaign. Along the way, O'Brien unearths a bizarre plot to develop a mountainside in rural Colorado and a Pilager backer's efforts to cover up the project's environmental implications.
The acting is mediocre at best. Danny Huston is miscast and Chris Cooper, though hilarious, is under-utilized. The film's plot is overlong, cyclical, tedious and in my mind, peripheral. The real meat of the film is Sayles's startling response to Dean's query: Sayles reckons that Bush and his ilk are simply being controlled by the sinister underbelly of American politics, the special interest groups and business elements that purportedly control most of the politics that goes on in this country.
In Sayles's insular world of fictional Coloradan politics, these elements create a universe of interrelatedness. In the struggle for the governorship of Colorado, the lobbyists work for special interest groups, the interest groups are in the pocket of the corporations, the corporations buy out the media, the media is stalled at every corner and the result is a political system totally divorced from reality. Indeed, in the film's unforgettable final shot, Pilager gives a rabble-rousing speech about the evils of environmental regulation, while hundreds of fish slowly float to the surface of a mountain lake behind him.
Sayles packs his film with everything Americans hate about their political system; his characters include radio talk-show hosts, special-interest lobbyists, right-wing evangelicals and big business bosses. Caustic humor emanates throughout, but optimism is at a premium, as Sayles's assault on the warped world of modern politics is unrelenting.
Silver City delves into the dark side of American values, looking at the dangers of abused democracy. And although Pilager is a not-so-subtle parody of our current president (he even mispronounces "nuclear"), it would be close-minded to view the film as an attack on a single leader in a single place and time. Rather, the movie is an attack on an entire system of corruption and hypocrisy, and those that have allowed that system to flourish.
If you're a cynic or a fan of campaign finance reform, you'll feel vindicated; if not, you're liable to be bored. But if your faith in democracy isn't at least rattled by the time you walk out of the theatre, you're a stronger person than I am.
Silver City (129 minutes) is rated R for language. Now playing at the AFI Silver Theatre.
Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »