Chump on the stump
Silver City is writer-director John Sayles’ most overtly political film in years, and audiences no doubt will get a lot of giggles out of playing “spot the reference.” The story revolves around a campaign for governor of Colorado in which the leading candidate is a charming, empty-headed suit named Richard “Dickie” Pilager (Chris Cooper), the son of a legendary senator (Michael Murphy). He’s an amiable dunce, utterly lost without a script to read and hopelessly at sea without the supervision of his manager, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss).
Dickie is sure to win at the polls, running on an anti-environmentalist platform (Sayles, for once throwing subtlety to the winds, tells you all you need to know about the candidate in his name—Pilager—just as Raven’s name tells you all you need to know about him). But the campaign hits a snag—both literally and figuratively—when Dickie and his entourage are out shooting a political commercial at a mountain lake. Pretending to be an avid fisherman, the candidate stands at the shore casting his line into the water, confiding to the camera about how he turns to nature when he wants to get away from the hurly-burly of politics. To everyone’s surprise, Dickie actually hooks something. But it’s not a fish. It’s human. And it—or rather he—is dead.
Raven, being a ravin’ political paranoid, is unwilling to write off the presence of a corpse on the campaign trail to mere coincidence. So, he turns to a political-research (read “detective”) agency run by Grace Seymour (Mary Kay Place), whose husband, Mort (David Clennon), is the developer behind the huge Silver City project, which is being pushed through with the help of Dickie and corporate kingpin Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), the power behind the Pilager political dynasty.
Grace, in turn, assigns the case to one of her operatives, Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston). His assignment is simple: Raven doesn’t know or care who the dead man is; he just wants Danny to contact three of Raven’s usual suspects—people who might have an interest in embarrassing Dickie—and let them know they’re being watched, thereby, Raven hopes, scaring them off any mischief they may be up to. The three are right-wing radio host Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer); former mining engineer Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite); and Dickie’s loose-morals, loose-cannon sister Maddy (Daryl Hannah).
But Danny is a former crusading reporter who has fallen on hard times, ever since a misstep on a big story destroyed his career. At this whiff of mystery, his old instincts kick in, and he sets out to track down the dead man’s identity and learn how he wound up in the lake. Before long, he’s thinking maybe he should have minded his own business.
Sayles peppers his complex, densely populated story with what seems like every hot-button issue of leftist activism: destruction of the environment, big money in politics, jingoism, exploitation of undocumented immigrants, corporate pollution, you name it—enough to fill two or three issues of Mother Jones. It’s clear where his sympathies lie, but Sayles is an artist, not a propagandist, and what makes even his weakest movies (such as Men with Guns) fascinating is the way he can give all his characters, villains as well as heroes, their full humanity.
It’s a talent that also attracts the best actors, and Sayles has an embarrassment of riches here. Like the best films of Robert Altman (and, on a different level altogether, Woody Allen), Silver City is a succession of richly textured, sharply written cameo performances, and the thread that holds them all together is Huston (son of the legendary director John and half-brother of Anjelica) as the reporter Danny. Earnest and open-faced, he gives the movie—despite the fact that the character is something of a hapless screw-up, both personally and professionally—a core of decency.
The film can certainly use it. Ultimately, Danny finds himself swamped in a world of corruption, cynicism, dishonesty and exploitation, where even the slightest expression of patriotism is an occasion for bitter, ironic scorn. Still, there seems hope for Danny, if not for the country. Look for decency in the little fish, Sayles seems to say; the big fish are beyond redemption.