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Sayles' Silver City doesn't quite measure up
The candidate and the corpse

Review by Brian Jones | September 24, 2004 | Page 13

Silver City, written, directed and edited by John Sayles, starring Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss and Darryl Hannah.

ANGERED BY the "one-sided discussion" in American politics, John Sayles wanted to make a film where the politics in it are "of the day." His new release, Silver City, accomplishes that in a mildly entertaining murder mystery.

As Silver City opens, we meet Dicky Pilager (played by Chris Cooper), a Colorado gubernatorial candidate whose dim wits and speech difficulties are a hysterical, if not thinly veiled, imitation of a certain Republican president. Pilager is on the campaign trail, micro-managed by Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), when filming of the candidate doing his "bucolic fishing thing" goes awry.

Pilager hasn't caught a fish, but a dead body. Smelling a plot to sabotage the campaign, Raven hires discredited-reporter-turned-investigator Danny O'Brien (played by the wide-eyed Danny Huston) to look into it. As he follows the trail of clues, O'Brien encounters independent Web journalists, unscrupulous real-estate developers (who want to build an environmentally unsafe "Silver City" housing development), lobbyists for hire, immigrant laborers and, in the person of his ex-girlfriend, a conflicted corporate journalist.

What he uncovers is the web of greed, power and corruption that is standard operating procedure in American politics today. It turns out that there is a connection after all between the corpse in the river and the candidate on the shore.

Sayles is to be commended for bringing these connections to the silver screen, and Cooper's performance is a surprising treat. When Sayles began working on the film, he clearly imagined it would be a lone voice of protest in the film industry.

His producer, Maggie Renzie, had recurring dreams that "John Ashcroft was going to bust in the door" during filming. But after Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Manchurian Candidate, their protest seems too tame to warrant Ashcroft's attention.

Sayles, a skillful and thoughtful filmmaker whose movies include Matewan and Lone Star, this time lets his characters "explain the way things really work" in so many scenes that the film loses dramatic tension and takes on a preachy feel. While Cooper is able to shine, excellent actors such as Thora Birch and Tim Roth only get to do exposition.

The best scene, in fact, is between two right-wing characters. Pilager and one of his most important backers, a Mr. Benteen of the "Bentel" Corporation (Kris Kristofferson), are on horseback in the mountains, trying to grasp "the big picture." The scene is hysterical because it takes itself so seriously, and the filmmaker's commentary is implicit.

I was able to attend a screening that was also a fundraiser for a group called "Downtown for Democracy," which, according to the pitch before the film, is sending busloads of New Yorkers to swing states every weekend to convince people to vote "the right way." Actually, the real "big picture" is that none of what Sayles exposes in this film is going to change after November 2, regardless of who wins.

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