American politics have become polarized beyond the rational. Positions are taken emotionally, lines are drawn in the proverbial sand, and the left and the right stand on either side sticking their tongues out at each other and launching sound bites, propaganda and TV spots that deal with everything except the issues of the day.
The film business is hardly immune from its political environment and some have used the medium to promote their point of view, most notably this year, of course, Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11. Moore’s film is very effective, indeed, and it has the virtue of not in any serious way claiming to be anything more than the polemical propaganda piece that it is.
John Sayles, in contrast, is an accomplished filmmaker who has created some memorable work over the last few decades — Matewan, Lone Star, and Limbo are all works grounded in solid character development. Sayles, like Moore, is a political animal with a pronouncedly progressive bent, but Sayles, originally a documentarian, has shown he can make his political points in the context of well-wrought drama.
On the other hand, Sayles has often disappointed, sometimes getting so caught up in issues that he neglects to create rounded characterizations to make his audience care. Sunshine State is a good example of a well-intentioned film that falls flat because it gets so wrapped up in making political points that the characters become merely mouthpieces.
Silver City, acknowledged to be a quickly thrown together effort, unfortunately has the same faults as Sunshine State. A leading character is Dicky Pilager, a somewhat dim and notably inarticulate candidate for governor of Colorado, the son of the current senator from that state. Brilliantly played by Chris Cooper, an actor whose versatility seems to expand exponentially with each new film, Pilager is a dead-on parody of George W. Bush in his vapid, bumbling prime. It’s a genuinely funny portrait, but it hurts when you laugh, as perhaps the best satire does.
Sayles paints Pilager as the face-man for his father and his father’s big-money corporate friends who are unprincipled in their pursuit of profit, destroying the environment with the help of equally unprincipled lobbyists, bureaucrats, and legislators who create loopholes big enough to swallow whole virgin forests and pristine mountain lakes. To provide some dramatic drive to this interesting but somewhat didactic exposition, Sayles (who wrote the screenplay as well as directed) overlays a murder mystery so that the plotting ties in to the environmental desecration going on. Unfortunately it’s not a particularly interesting mystery which further flattens the already not very dramatic political goings on.
Danny Huston plays a one-time reporter, now a private investigator, who digs into the murder even though his client, Pilager’s campaign manager (a frantic Richard Dreyfuss) has called him off. Huston’s boss, Grace (Mary Kay Place) is married to a real estate developer who has pinned his hopes on a major new housing complex–"Silver City." There’s a right wing talk radio star, a left wing muckraker with a website, a minister, a once-idealistic woman reporter (Maria Bello) romancing one of the unprincipled lobbyists (Billy Zane), and even Kris Kristofferson playing against character as the big-money industrialist. There’s Esperanza, the Chicano who delivers illegal migrants to work the mines and there’s the candidate’s sister, Maddy (Daryl Hannah), a somewhat floozy, disillusioned family maverick. In short, it’s a lengthy roster that spreads the film way too thin, more characters than could ever become more than sketchy vehicles to express Sayles’ observations of the political landscape.
Some directors (Robert Altman in Nashville, for example, or Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia) can somehow mold a multi-charactered ensemble into emotionally compelling drama. But even the long roster of skilled players in Silver City doesn’t make this script come alive.