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Silver City (2004)
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by Robert Flaxman

"Sayles' film is worth its weight in 'Silver'."
5 stars

Silver City, the latest film from John Sayles, is a multi-layered film with a lot to say about a lot of different things. In the end, it bites off a little more than it can comfortably chew, but the experience is still an enjoyable one, even if it leaves a distinctly bitter aftertaste.

The film's primary story is almost an episode of CSI: disgraced reporter turned private investigator Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston, Anjelica's half-brother) is assigned by political strategist Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) to assist in hushing up a potentially embarrassing situation for Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper). The situation is a dead body in a lake, but rather than hushing things up, O'Brien spends the film trying to figure out who the body is and how it got there.

While the CSI plot moves along, various other interconnected plots cross its path. The Pilager family has connections to a giant corporation; a real estate developer wants to build in Silver City, formerly a failed mine owned by Pilager; reporters follow Pilager on the campaign trail.

It's a lot to keep track of, and most of it wouldn't be necessary if Sayles weren't interested in making the film a critique of America's current political system. There is a direct reference to George W. Bush in the film, but Pilager is clearly intended as a Dubya surrogate. He is a lousy public speaker, he's told what to think by his Karl Rove-like strategist and by corporate interests, he insists that his number one priority is tax cuts, and he's very focused on having the support of the Christian right. The similarities don't even end there, but those are more than enough to make the connection on their own.

Sayles' suggestion is that Bush is a corporate pawn, a legitimately dim man with a manufactured down-home image and a vague platform built on stock answers and avoidance of tough questions from the press. He also clearly thinks Bush is bad for the environment, if not the whole of America - the fact that his Bush figure's name is "Pilager" says most of what needs to be known about Sayles' politics.

Sayles is pretty vicious by any objective standard, but the film's cynicism is actually what saves it from going over the top. Sayles could have ended the film with Pilager and/or Raven receiving comeuppance, but while the film teases for a while that this might happen, it never does. It would have been easy for Sayles to put in a "Bush loses in '04" fantasy, or come up with any number of embarrassing situations to put Pilager in. Instead, he argues that the little guy (in this case O'Brien) really can't expect to stop the wheels of power - especially when that power is so interconnected. Most of the film's characters have some sort of relationship with Pilager or his corporate backers, and their interest in seeing Pilager win the election leads to a lot of trouble for O'Brien. And, says Sayles, the people in power are ruining America thanks to their slavish devotion to special interests.

It's a cutting jab at the corruption of American government, but it's also a well-crafted film. The acting is uniformly terrific from a diverse cast, and Sayles' direction is sharp. The relationship between O'Brien and his reporter ex-girlfriend Nora (Maria Bello) is well-developed and well-played by Huston and Bello, and provides a good anchor to the film's main murder-mystery plot, as well as another good example of interconnection - Nora's current fiancé is a lobbyist working directly with Pilager and Raven.

It's a little long, but Silver City doesn't feel that way - instead, it feels expansive, as though an important piece of work were being unfolded. Sadly, Sayles is likely to find himself preaching to the liberal choir just as Michael Moore did with Fahrenheit 9/11 - anyone who disagrees with Sayles' politics is unlikely to be convinced. Sayles is probably aware of this, though - he pitches his film so far to the left it's hard to believe he expects to change minds. The Democratic candidate in the race is never even named in the film, so unimportant is he to Sayles' attack on the right.

And that is really where the film loses its way, ever so slightly. Moore's films make some very valid points, but they are frequently disregarded because of his attack-dog style and sometime tendency to bend things to fit his filmic constraints. Sayles' message would be more powerful if it weren't so vitriolic, but it's clear that he's really mad about what's going on in Washington - maybe too mad. A slightly more level-headed critique of Bush's ascent to power would have worked better than Sayles' method, in which he criticizes the method but spends as much or more time simply mocking Bush for being a bad public speaker. Making verbal gaffes stick to Bush is too easy a target, and not an important enough target in the bigger picture.

Despite this, though, Silver City is a nice whodunit with a lot going on and some decent political critique. Sayles belongs on the short list for Best Original Screenplay nominations this year for his rich, complex work, a movie that anyone concerned with the path America is on should want to see, and with which they can expect to commisserate.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10364&reviewer=385
originally posted: 10/09/04 18:01:56
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Boston Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Boston Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/26/05 Phil M. Aficionado Make a good movie and let the politics follow along; this was backward, hamhanded, sluggish 2 stars
1/19/05 burton miller bad dialog, stupid story, preachy - and the lead sucked absolutely all ass 1 stars
9/22/04 marianne thompson Sayles shows the personal as well as global disasters of hypocritical government 5 stars
9/22/04 el burro Very clever. Doesnt need to slap you in the face to make it's point. 4 stars
9/19/04 denny disappointing; a broad political satire would have been better; agree with critics 2 stars
9/19/04 Heather Good movie, but the storyline needs tightening up, uneven at times 4 stars
9/18/04 Jesse Browne Potential high - delivery bland 3 stars
9/17/04 Laurie James Waste of Time 2 stars
9/16/04 Cole Sims Miserably bad. Wandered around senselessly. 1 stars
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  17-Sep-2004 (R)
  DVD: 11-Jan-2005



Directed by
  John Sayles

Written by
  John Sayles

  Chris Cooper
  Richard Dreyfuss
  Michael Murphy
  Maria Bello
  Thora Birch
  Miguel Ferrer

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