Apparently in the last few weeks, there was this big, left-wing, anti-Bush bus tour through the Southwest with John Sayles, a bunch of his actors, and sundry pundits on behalf of Sayles’ new hybrid political satire/melodrama Silver City (Newmarket). I’d like to have been at one of those PR events: The presence of all those rabid anti-Bushies might have added the element of danger that Silver City needs. On its own, the movie takes off into the comic stratosphere in its first sequence and then slowly sinks to Earth, made logy by its noble means and Sayles’ increasing inability to shoot anything but fat clots of undramatic talk in the most boring manner imaginable. I know, he’s the quintessentially admirable independent filmmaker, but on the evidence of Silver City, he has systematically unlearned everything he once knew about how to tell a story onscreen.
The movie opens with its best sequence. There’s this hapless Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate, Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), a dimwitted ex-frat-boy from a well-connected political dynasty, filming an ad in which he pretends to fish in a pristine lake while holding forth on his deep connection to the land. After two syllables you recognize George W. in Dickie’s tortured syntax, but it’s more than a Saturday Night Live impression (not that SNL hasn’t done well by W.): Sayles and Cooper have gotten into the swamp of Bush’s head and discovered an actor who simply can’t remember his lines or blocking. It’s a study in hilariously inept timing. The capper is that Dickie’s limp rod hooks a corpse. His Rovian Über-handler, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss, his delivery and timing even more deft with age), hustles the confused candidate into a van and goes into damage-control mode: hushing up the discovery (for fear it would make Dickie look ridiculous) and trying to determine if the corpse had been dumped in the lake by Pilager family foes.
The air begins to leak out of the movie when the narrative is passed to investigator Danny O’Brien, played by Danny Huston. In part it’s that the dull trajectory is suddenly visible: The film is going to consist of Danny trudging around interviewing people with an ax to grind against the Pilagers, from a right-wing radio nut (Miguel Ferrer, murmuring, “Jane Fonda—God, we miss her”) to a scrupulous mining inspector (Ralph Waite) to the candidate’s own nympho harridan sister (Daryl Hannah). Meanwhile, alas, he’s going to sort out his own political commitments: Danny was once a crusading investigative reporter but got hung out to dry by a source. Will he rediscover his passion to change the world and, along the way, his ex-girlfriend (Maria Bello)? Will he be a tool for Raven/Rove, for Dickie’s H.W.-like dad (Michael Murphy), and his corporatist/land-developer machine, or rise to the occasion and spearhead the war against them? Meanwhile, Dickie and his riotously vapid locutions are glimpsed only in tantalizing inserts leading nowhere.
There is a great tradition of conspiratorial left-wing melodramas in which the ruling class tries to bury the truth, the upshot being that the water table is poisoned (metaphorically and literally). The identity of the corpse leads Danny to an illegal-alien ring, murderous polluters, and a fanatical robber baron (Kris Kristofferson) who embodies everything in the world that Sayles hates most—and everything that brings out the witty monologist in him. (Kristofferson has a marvelous horseback speech in which he avers that the country’s natural resources must be “liberated for the people”—the “people” in this case being the condo-building developers.) But despite the involvement of a vicious alien trafficker (Luis Saguar), there isn’t a lot of suspense to the movie’s outcome, and the history of the Pilager family turns out to be a lot drier than the stuff turned up by Kitty Kelley—or even Craig Unger and Kevin Phillips. Sayles loves his actors and gives almost everyone in his large cast a moment to shine, but Silver City has no pulse, no urgency. He trots out smart thesis statements and racks up solid political points, but even as your head is nodding in assent you can feel your eyes glazing over.
Danny Huston has been an interesting presence in supporting roles, but this weird nonactor (the son of John and a sometime producer and director) doesn’t have the resources to carry a whole movie: He makes the brainy O’Brien seem lumbering and slow-witted, and a lot of his co-stars (especially Maria Bello) look to be acting for two. But this is some kind of supporting cast. Tim Roth is a shoulder-chip on legs as a libertarian Internet crusader, and Billy Zane has wonderful sleazy banter as a lobbyist versed in squeezing money from as many different sources as possible. Sal Lopez has such a witty, lived-in presence as a Mexican-American chef whom Danny deputizes that you hope he’ll take over the whodunit reins. And Daryl Hannah is in peak form—even wittier than in Kill Bill—as Dickie’s sister, a perilous combination of wiles and exhibitionism fueled by good looks and wealth.
Silver City has a searing final image, but the thing that anchors itself in your mind is Chris Cooper, swaying in front of reporters, his gestures always punctuating the wrong word. “The whole environmental arena: That’s a priority. Big priority,” he explains, as the press gazes on him, dumbstruck. But even here there’s a certain toothlessness in Sayles’ rhetoric. I thought we’d long ago moved past the notion that W. is just a “user-friendly” boob and begun to look for larger and more labyrinthine explanations for the poison that now gushes through our political discourse and our culture. The malleable nincompoop of Silver City—that almost looks like a silver lining.