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Truth to Power



Throughout his career, MacArthur ("Genius") Award winner John Sayles has structured his films and invented his characters so as to offer commentary on social and political issues. He profiled a reunion of 1960s radicals in Return of the Secaucus Seven, examined the plight of West Virginia coal miners in Matewan, and looked at cycles of Central American violence in Men With Guns. He untangled the snarl of interests complicating urban redevelopment in City of Hope, probed illegal immigration in Lone Star, and pondered racial dislocation in Florida's resort construction boom in Sunshine State. His amazingly prescient new film, Silver City, would seem to be about a Colorado gubernatorial campaign, but it's pretty pointedly about the 2004 presidential race and, more pervasively, the media's role in the American electoral system.

Written, directed and edited by Sayles, Silver City stars long-time collaborator Chris Cooper as Richard "Dickie" Pilager (subtle name that!), the tongue-tied, slow-thinking son of Colorado's powerful senior U.S. senator Judd Pilager (Michael Murphy) who is a close ally of the state's richest individual, billionaire oil man, rancher and developer Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson). Cooper's portrayal of Dickie will invoke the image of our current president without resorting to the kind of imitation, for instance, that Timothy Bottoms does. Dickie hasn't succeeded at much in his life, but Benteen has bailed him out of enough ill-advised business ventures that he's ended up a millionaire anyway. Does this sound anything like George W. Bush's penchant for drilling dry oil wells and nonetheless making sweetheart deals with Saudi-backed Harken Oil and the Carlyle Group?

Now Benteen and papa Judd are running Dickie for governor under the day-to-day campaign management of Karl-Rove-like Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss). Unfortunately, the campaign has barely begun when suspicion and paranoia rear their ugly purple heads. While filming a TV ad on a lakeshore, Dickie casts for trout and hooks a human corpse instead. Raven immediately suspects an attempt to embarrass his candidate, so he hires private investigator Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston) to check out and intimidate three individuals with historic grudges against Dickie. Mysteriously, Raven doesn't check out Danny and therefore doesn't discover that before working as a P.I., Danny was an investigative reporter who specialized in exposing public corruption. Danny tries to choke down his assignment from Raven, but pretty soon he's investigating Dickie's ties to Benteen and their particular relationship over a failed silver mining operation, now the site for a proposed resort complex.

The plotting here is probably more complicated than it need be, and not everything is as tight as we might want. Two of the three people Raven targets for Danny aren't essential to the story at all. Right-wing radio host Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer) is presumably included to illustrate the tug the hard-right has on those politicians who become Republicans because they are pro business. Comparably, Danny's embittered sister Maddy (Daryl Hannah) seems included so that Sayles can illustrate the rampant hypocrisy among politicians who portray themselves as pro-life. George H.W. Bush was pro-choice until he determined that he needed to be pro-life if he wanted to be a Republican president. Sayles' script also includes a romantic angle with Huston trying to win back former girlfriend Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), but this is largely tangential to the core narrative as well.

The central story emerges from Danny's conversations with retired state agent Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who once sought to bust Dickie and Benteen for polluting the ground water with chemicals they used in their silver operations. Lyle was right, but he couldn't prove it and lost his own position instead. That's exactly how Danny lost his job as a newspaper reporter. Hence my earlier comment about the prescience of this film. For it arrives at the nation's multiplexes at the very moment we find ourselves in the midst of an uproar about the authenticity of documents CBS produced to suggest that George W. Bush received an honorable discharge from the National Guard despite failing to fulfill his military obligations. Dan Rather has been excoriated for displaying documents that might have been forged, even though the secretary who said she didn't type them maintains that they accurately reflect the truth.

At the end of Silver City, Benteen moves to curtail any public damage that might befall either himself or his candidate by buying up the local media. This is the central point Sayles wants to make. America has always prided itself on a free press. And throughout most of our history the concept of a free press has served as a check on political power. As Danny states the proposition, a free press has the obligation to act as a referee rather than a spectator. But how can the press function under its corporate umbrella when its conglomerate owners have vested interests in the policies of one political candidate as opposed to those of his opponent? Who is in control of the truth

Daddy's boy: Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) and gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) check out the lay of the land in John Sayles' latest film, Silver City.
  • Daddy's boy: Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) and gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) check out the lay of the land in John Sayles' latest film, Silver City.

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