It’s easy to make assumptions about a political candidate named Dickie Pilager. Taking such assumptions as its point of departure, Silver City goes on to complicate just these sorts of expectations. Similarly, it’s easy to call John Sayles’ movies polemical (or maybe, refreshingly upfront about their politics), and neglect their complex characterizations and sinuous, historically resonant plots (these being only two reasons why actors like to work with Sayles repeatedly). Always coming with a sense of outrage and mission, Brother from Another Planet (1984) to Lone Star (1996) to Casa de Los Babys (2003), Sayles’ films do make strong cases, and they do so on multiple levels.
Silver City, as its title suggests, concerns U.S. political-corporate mythology, the “shining city on a hill” reduced to basic elements, for example, 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, the also unsubtly named Chuck Raven (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.
Telling Danny that he wants his campaign kept out of the investigation (he doesn’t “want people to get distracted from the message”), Raven hands him 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).
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 pose 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.
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). Danny’s visits with Mitch (whose staff includes the underused Thora Birch as Karen, a cynical-before-her-time investigative reporter) 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 another 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.” Though Nora surely gets this, you also get that Chandler’s a bad choice, and he’s soon enough disappeared from her plot.
Still, she’s a realist, and feels she can’t quite throw in with Danny, whose “intense,” obsessive nature makes him a difficult life partner. This time, his quest evolves into something less strictly a political tract, and more like 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 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, best-selling midsized utility vehicle.”
Benteen’s recollection of the past is more than a little 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. A number of differently polemical films have emerged this political season, from The Passion of the Christ to Fahrenheit 9/11 to Demme’s Manchurian Candidate. It might be more effective in the current sensationalist climate to make political points via brainwashing implants than dead Mexican émigrés. But what does that assume about audiences?
“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.”