- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

“Silver City” is a full-frontal assault on what writer-director John Sayles sees as the myria d outrages of George W. Bush’s America: corporations enriching themselves at the expense of the environment, media consolidation with its concomitant muzzling of independent voices and the mistreatment of vulnerable Mexican migrant workers, to name just a few.

Since it’s fiction, Mr. Sayles is conveniently free of the burden of proving direct culpability or exposing real corruption — a burden that proved to be the common downfall of such Bush-bashing documentaries as “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The Corporation.”

It’s a bummer to watch Mr. Sayles (“Lone Star,” “Sunshine State”) fritter that freedom away on a barely coherent plot involving a political family (pointedly called the Pilagers) with ties to a corporation honcho (played by Kris Kristofferson, a Sayles standby) bent on privatizing large swaths of publicly managed land in pristine Colorado.

The cast is big and bright and worth a roll call. It includes Tim Roth and Thora Birch as underground press hounds and the foxy Maria Bello as an enterprising mainstream reporter. Billy Zane, playing a slick corporate lobbyist, pulls another “Titanic” and loses the girl because he’s an avaricious creep.

Daryl Hannah gives a zingy performance as the Patti Davis-like black sheep of the Pilager family. Her daddy (Michael Murphy) is a powerful U.S. senator.

Three central roles stand out from the ensemble. First among them is Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager, the senator’s son who makes a run for Colorado governor. (You’ve probably heard by now: Mr. Cooper’s character is a literal sort of Dubya lampoon; the “Adaptation” Oscar winner plays him as a bumbling cipher, a syntactical train-wrecker incapable of original thought and the plaything of his well-heeled backers.)

Second is Danny Huston (the son of famed director John Huston) as Danny O’Brien, an ex-reporter turned private investigator.

O’Brien is all compromised idealism and frustrated ambition. He’s dispatched by the Pilager campaign to warn off a few of Dickie’s political adversaries when — in the movie’s darkly comical opening scene — Dickie hooks a dead body while filming a tweedy commercial in which the candidate is shown fishing a Colorado river.

Finally, there’s Richard Dreyfuss, a real-life liberal who seems to relish playing conservatives in movies. (I’m thinking of his turn in “The American President” as a hardball GOP senator.) Here, he’s Chuck Raven, Dickie’s bumptious chief political machinator.

Mr. Dreyfuss is full of mean one-liners that will elicit howls from liberals who think Republicans rank somewhere between the AIDS virus and Attila the Hun.

This swirl of characters revolves around the aforementioned dead body, an unidentified Hispanic (a “Juan Doe”) who, it’s soon revealed, was connected to a housing development planned for a ghost town that once figured in Dickie’s disastrous mining career (a stand-in for President Bush’s failures as a wildcatter).

There’s toxic waste, greased regulatory skids and human smuggling, and it’s all oh-so-Republican. Or so Mr. Sayles wishes us to think. I think his grotesques — of dispensationalist Christians, talk-radio hosts and pulverizingly generic campaign rhetoric — boomerang in the way that Tim Robbins’ “Bob Roberts” did: What’s ultimately funny is the crudity of the caricature. They’re like Stalinist cartoons of Western businessmen as portly old men sporting top hats and monocles and toting sacks of money marked with $ symbols, in case you missed the intent.

None of “Silver City” is all that shocking in the end, and the movie just sort of deflates into an embittered unresolution. I don’t give away plot points to report that its last scene is of a poisonous Colorado lake full of (computer-generated) floating dead fish.

I’ll buy an ice cream for any reader who knows of any lake in America that looks like that. (Call the U.S. House Committee on Resources if you need a head start.)

And when you come up empty, you’ll realize — if you hadn’t already — that “Silver City” is little more than a patchwork of leftist pessimism and paranoia.

**

TITLE: “Silver City”

RATING: R (Profanity; brief drug use; mild sexuality)

CREDITS: Written, directed and edited by John Sayles. Produced by Maggie Renzi. Cinematography by Haskell Wexler. Score by Mason Daring.

RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes.

WEB SITE: www.silvercitythemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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