Power's a Locomotive, Baby
My message to the criminals is this: you straighten up or get out. There’s no place for you in our state. You do the crime, and by God, you’re gonna have to face your lumps.
—Dicky Pilager (Chris Cooper), Silver City
We didn’t know, until his wife told us, that [Chris Cooper] did a very credible George Bush imitation, sometimes to torture her.
—Maggie Renzi, commentary, Silver City
Until people are personally affected, they’re not going to care about it.
—Richard Dreyfuss, “The Making of Silver City”
“I started thinking about this story for Silver City after the Bush and Gore election. So many people in Florida told us, ‘Well, the story wasn’t about chads. It was about how many African American people didn’t get to vote.’” John Sayles decided to make a movie addressing these concerns. He makes movies that matter. This not because they’re seen by hordes of viewers, but because they take seriously social and political problems, reframing them as stories, part fiction, based in experience, and wholly engaged. As Sayles says in the making-of documentary included on the new DVD of Silver City, the 2000 election led to outrage and frustration. Facing these feelings, he and partner Maggie Renzi did what they know how to do—they made a movie.
The film concerns Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), a wealthy, mostly inarticulate corporate-political scion running for governor of Colorado. He also pretty much embodies U.S. political-corporate mythology, the “shining city on a hill” reduced to basic elements, for example, fumbling sound bites, corrupt real estate schemes, and mining in Colorado. Son of Senator Judd Pilager (Michael Murphy), wealthy local scion Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper, whose vocal rhythms and manner clearly reference George W. Bush) is running for governor. While shooting a campaign spot in which he’s posing as a pensive fisherman who likes to “get back to nature” to gather his thoughts, Dickie hooks a Mexican worker’s dead body. Suspecting the worst, Dickie’s cutthroat campaign manager, Chuck (Richard Dreyfuss), hires political snoop/former journalist Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) to track down just which political enemy has arranged the corpse’s surprise appearance.
Insisting that he wants his campaign kept out of the investigation (he doesn’t “want people to get distracted from the message”), Raven hands Danny a list of possible culprits, including conservative radio host Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), environmental activist Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), and Dickie’s own angry, alienated sister Maddy (Daryl Hannah) (the fact that she’s a former Olympic archer makes for an amusing introduction, as she’s outfitted like Athena, shooting arrows while exchanging barbs with Danny, who’s not so clever as he supposes). Danny’s visits with these suspects reveals only that Pilager and company have left a wake of resentment behind them, none of them powerful or imaginative enough to fight back.
Little does Raven know that Danny is a longtime truth-seeker (he was notoriously fired by the Denver Monitor for fabricating a story, though he was actually set up), that is, once he’s got hold of a story, Danny tends to hang on. He starts digging into the candidate’s background—namely, his being propped up by billionaire corporateer Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofersson), who soothes Dickie’s occasional jitters by taking him horseback riding against a dramatically mountainous backdrop. The image is familiar—the rugged individual, the environmental candidate, the jingoist astride his steed—and the conversation is revealing. Wes asks, “You know what the big picture is, don’t you? Privatization.” Dickie nods, uncomprehending. “Untapped resources,” Wes continues, “Liberty for the American people.” Unsaid but understood is Wes’ jurisdiction over this vision: any “liberty” is a function of his prosperity and power. As Sayles says on the commentary track, this particular scene is shot across from Rocky Flats, now listed as a “wildlife refuge,” because people are no longer allowed on this site where “we used to make triggers for nuclear weapons,” and that remains contaminated to this day.
Less grand than this horseback ride, Danny discovers the underbelly of the Benteen-Pilager relationship when he taps old friend and internet muckraker Mitch (Tim Roth), whom Sayles, on the DVD commentary, describes as “a reporter who has literally been driven underground.” Danny’s visits with Mitch (whose staff includes cynical-before-her-time investigative reporter Karen [Thora Birch]) reveals his strategy as a website journalist: to accumulate enough information that the mainstream press will take “our legwork, our ideas, to write outraged exposés and win Pulitzers, making out like a pack of jackals. But somebody has to plant the seed.” Danny also discovers here the broad scope of Benteen’s influence. Though Danny is at once awed by and resistant to the implications (“I don’t really do politics anymore,” he sighs, as if any activity is free of “politics,” ever), Mitch identifies the real problem: “You’re working for them.”
So begins Danny’s earnest effort to sort out sides, the us and them who have turned increasingly difficult to parse in the media-corporate landscape that is U.S. politics. If the bad guys seem obvious, the good are confused and shifting, well intentioned but unsure of how to make themselves heard above the din of patriotic consumerism. One might be his ex, Nora (Maria Bello), a reporter feeling more aligned with the entertainment industry than any fourth estate, and—as if to seal that deal—engaged to a lobbyist, Chandler (Billy Zane). When she expresses some doubts about their choices compared to Danny’s (“He was intense,” she admits, and yet rather admires him too, “He cared about things”), Chandler, readying himself for a bike ride in full yellow-and-black regalia, scoffs, “Power’s a locomotive, baby. You either get on board or it runs right over you.” Nora’s a realist, and while she’s put off by Chandler’s slickness, she also distrusts Danny, whose “intense,” obsessive nature makes him a difficult life partner and prone to debilitating depression.
She’s impressed that Danny looks as if he means to follow through, even if the end is not precisely recognizable “success.” The plot takes on the shape of a film noir, specifically quoting Chinatown (which famously featured Houston’s grandfather John as the villain), a set of entertaining complications having to do with mining, land-grabbing, Mexican laborers, and murder. Eventually, Danny’s officially fired by “them,” ostensibly for sleeping with Maddy, but also for being a former journalist (most definitely and absolutely the enemy, according to Raven), which leaves him more or less free to pursue the murder plot. This means he has minor dealings with Sheriff Skaggs (the great James Gammon) and more intricate encounters with the Mexican laborers who fear, resent, and also need to appease their employer, Benteen. (This allows for too brief appearance by the excellent Alma Delfina as Lupe, the office cleaner who agrees to translate for Danny.)
Of the movie’s multiple plotlines, the most insidious is surely Benteen’s. Though he appears in few scenes, his effects are everywhere. He is also, aptly, the most astute observer of the scene he commands. Meeting Danny at a fundraiser for Dickie, he stands off by the snack table, spouting wisdom. “Americans don’t have the patience for underdogs like they used to… They used to advertise the quality of a product: tastes great, whitens your teeth, shaves close, rides like a dream. Now what do they push? America’s number one soft drink, bestselling midsized utility vehicle.”
Benteen’s recollection of the past is self-servingly nostalgic. Advertising has never been concerned with “quality” so much as numbers. Yet he’s right about the excessive focus on numbers as a means to indicate “quality.” From presidential contest polls to Monday box office tallies, the military-corporate-entertainment complex is all about counting up points and dollars, defining winners by their difference from losers. Such measurement makes every product suspect. If it’s popular and attractive to a mass audience (like, say, a presidential candidate with whom you’d want to “have a beer”), it’s sold out and successful. If it’s ornery and difficult (even polemical), it might maintain an adversarial relation to the powers that be, but doesn’t reach or appeal to a broad consumer base. “Make people feel part of a winner,” Benteen concludes, “they’ll follow you anywhere.” When he asks Danny if he’s a winner, the younger man has the appropriate answer: “I like to think so.” And yet, he can’t be a “winner” in the sense that Benteen intends, for that would make him one of “them.”