Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), the Colorado gubernatorial candidate in John Sayles’s Silver City, is a mush-mouthed, born-again faux cowboy and the son of the state’s longtime conservative senator. He publicly champions a cleaner environment while aligning himself with fat-cat developers, speaks Spanish at photo ops with immigrant schoolkids while his financial backers exploit undocumented aliens, and is tethered to a take-no-prisoners campaign manager, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), who readily admits that Dickie is “not a fine-print kind of guy … he’s more intuitive.” The local press, which has the goods on the candidate, mostly stays out of the line of fire.
Anything here ring a bell?
We’ve lately been inundated with negative documentaries about Bush and his promoters, but Silver City is the first full-scale dramatic feature to attempt the same sort of demolition job. Sayles may be working in code, but his sense of outrage is still very much “on message.” He has spent much of his writing-directing career making low-budget, socially conscious movies about the marginalized in the Americas, and so Silver City cannot be construed as opportunism. On the contrary, it’s the logical movie for him to have made at this time—which is not the same thing as saying it’s great. Sayles’s political-humanist ambitions have always outstripped his actual achievement. You can admire everything he attempts and the creative independence he has achieved and still feel that something is lacking—a conceptual richness, perhaps, and a filmic richness, too. The camera setups in his new movie are fairly rudimentary, and as usual, the pace lags, perhaps because Sayles insists on editing his films himself. (This, his fifteenth feature, is not much of a stylistic advance over his first, and still my favorite, Return of the Secaucus 7.) Silver City, like his earlier, stronger political film, Matewan, about the 1920 West Virginia coal miners’ strike, is structured as a series of indictments. Scene follows scene as the case is laid out for the prosecution. As a novelist and short-story writer, Sayles isn’t this doctrinaire, but as a moviemaker, he wields a highlighter. He’s a pamphleteer whose movies are redeemed somewhat by his encompassing sympathy for people, including those who get caught up in their own foul play.
He has created a lead character in Silver City, Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), with whom it is impossible not to sympathize. A muckraking local reporter who stepped on too many toes and now is reduced to working as a small-time private investigator, Danny looks like a haggard, overgrown kid moping about in basic black. The fight went out of him long ago. When Chuck Raven hires him to put a scare into several potential enemies who might have played a dirty trick on Pilager—the fly-fishing scion hooked a cyanide-laced corpse while being filmed for an environmental spot—Danny dutifully makes the rounds. But his reporter’s instincts haven’t completely deserted him, and he begins digging into the pillagings of the Pilagers. He knows he’s in way over his head, but his newly ignited indignation urges him forward into the crosshairs.
“Using Dickie Pilager as a stand-in for George W. Bush seems too coy a tactic for these scabrous times. For better or worse, we want the ‘real’ deal.”
Sayles constructs Silver City as a film noir in bright sunshine. Danny the downtrodden gumshoe runs up against that genre staple, the powerful rich, who, of course, are venal—Pilager’s chief backer, Wes Benteen (craggy Kris Kristofferson), wants to privatize the wild frontier and refers to “the people” as a “damn herd of sheep.” Danny has run-ins with the police and hairbreadth escapes from thugs; there’s even the requisite sexy-spoiled heiress (leggy Daryl Hannah), who practices archery in her backyard with lethal accuracy. Using noir in this New West context feels a bit musty and out of whack; it doesn’t really fit the political immediacy of the story. At times, it’s as if we were watching a MoveOn redo of Chinatown.
Danny Huston’s father was John Huston, Chinatown’s reptilian patriarch. He even sounds like his father at times, especially the courtly drawl in his lower registers. But Huston isn’t just in the movie for his sentimental cachet. He gives a soul-deep performance that lifts Silver City beyond the polemical. When Danny’s former girlfriend (Maria Bello) says he “used to care about things,” we look at him and see a flame still sputtering in his large eyes. Danny may think that, along with most of the rest of America, he has lost the ability to be scandalized by political corruption, but that’s just a pose; when it comes down to doing the right thing, he’s there. If this tenderhearted tough-guy valor is very much in the Philip Marlowe mold, then so be it. It is no less emotionally effective for being so.
In the end, the topicality of Silver City, which is supposed to be its strongest suit, may be more problematic than its noirish trappings. The rush of campaign coverage, not to mention the rash of documentaries, has transformed the American political circus into a great big in-your-face “reality” show. How can a trumped-up drama compete with all this? As the unsuccessful remake of The Manchurian Candidate also demonstrated, we may no longer have the temperament to sit through camouflaged renditions of actual political chicanery. The Manchurian Global corporation in that film was a lame substitute for Halliburton. And using Dickie Pilager as a stand-in for George W. Bush seems too coy a tactic for these scabrous times. For better or worse, we want the real—or at least, the “real”—deal.
In Head in the Clouds, which might be better titled Head in the Sand, Charlize Theron plays Gilda, a bohemian aristocrat in thirties Paris who barely notices the political uproar around her—whether it’s the civil war in Spain or those pesky Nazis at home (and in her bed). The film is a stodgy snooze, and Theron, who is about as expressive here as a porcelain doll, lacks all believability—she’s followed her best performance (in Monster) with her worst.