Silver City

on September 17, 2004 by Wade Major
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By election day, there will have been no fewer than a dozen narrative and documentary films dealing either directly or peripherally with current politics, Iraq and/or terrorism. So it's really not surprising that one of them would come from a devoted old liberal like John Sayles. What is surprising is just how absolutely dreadful it is.

In "Silver City," Sayles revisits many of the themes and issues he previously explored in his brilliant, masterful 1991 "City of Hope," only this time he seems more interested in pontificating than probing. If anything, "Silver City" is the antithesis of "City of Hope," all but devoid of the subtlety, ambiguity, irony and complex, textured characterizations on which Sayles once staked his reputation. When the corpse of an unidentified migrant worker shows up during the shooting of a Pilager commercial, Raven kicks his Nixonian paranoia into high gear and hires a private investigator--a failed journalist named Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston, son of John and brother of Anjelica)--to do the leg work and figure out which of their many enemies is behind it. But what O'Brien uncovers instead is a vast and incredibly contrived right-wing conspiracy that confirms every suspicion Democrats have ever had about the cozy relationship between Republicans and big business.

Eventually the how and the why of the worker's death are resolved, but not before viewers have been subjected to at least a half-dozen cameo-delivered diatribes on the evils of deregulation and media consolidation, the dangers of corporate profiteering and development, the virtues of workers' rights and the importance of environmental protection. By the time Sayles is done troweling in the rest of the progressive playbook, not only does the stated explanation for the worker's death make no sense--it really no longer seems to matter.

Much like Spike Lee's "She Hate Me," "Silver City" is particularly disappointing because it comes from a filmmaker who really should know better. Both "City of Hope" and "Matewan" demonstrated a rare insight into the human complexities underlying their political and social complexities. But with "Silver City," Sayles has fallen into the Michael Moore trap, viewing the world through a one-dimensional prism, rendering his characters as nothing more than cartoon stereotypes of greedy, stupid, fanatically religious conservatives and conscientious, compassionate, free-spirited counterculture liberals. It's a level of obviousness that clearly doesn't suit Sayles' talents. From the silly double-entendre of Pilager's name to Huston's horribly stilted Jack Benny affectations, it all seems agonizingly constructed and manipulated--a symphony of false notes and discordant harmonies. More a polemic than an entertainment, it's certain to have its champions, but not for reasons of artistry--by the very standards of Sayles' own best work, it's impossible to regard "Silver City" as anything but an abject failure. Once the dean of American independent cinema, Sayles had no end of stories to tell. Now he has only messages to deliver. Starring Danny Huston, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, Maria Bello, Thora Birch, Kris Kristofferson, Mary Kay Place, Tim Roth, Ralph Waite, Billy Zane and Michael Murphy. Directed and written by John Sayles. Produced by Maggie Renzi. A Newmarket release. Drama. Rated R for language. Running time: 128 min

Tags: Danny Huston, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, Maria Bello, Thora Birch, Kris Kristofferson, Mary Kay Place, Tim Roth, Ralph Waite, Billy Zane, Michael Murphy, John Sayles, Maggie Renzi, Newmarket, Drama, Danny O'Brien, journalist, politics
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