Safe & Silent
John Sayles, USA, 2004
Posted: September 22,
Michael Moore’s documentary
Fahrenheit 9/11 took the fight directly to the current administration.
John Sayles’ drama Silver City prefers an opposite tactic: It’s a
rallying cry for the weary and defeated. Apathy has supplanted outrage,
which is Sayles’ ultimate point. The idea for Silver City came
about during the making of
Sunshine State; it's a product of Sayles’ bewilderment at how quickly
people in Florida lost any sense of indignation at the bungled voting
process of the 2000 presidential election and resigned themselves to idly
falling back and accepting the end result.
Nearly four years later, the same voters are presumably still paying
the bill for their lack of concern. Sayles’ “You get the government you
deserve” message is downbeat and sobering. Dramatically, such a concession
all but dooms the film to having no discernible payoff -- the acclaimed
writer/director even sidesteps a juicily ironic one (dead fish bobbing to
the surface of a poisoned lake just doesn't cut it). Silver City
isn’t so much a wakeup call as it’s a manifestation of what happens when
people stop asking questions and start accepting spoon-fed answers.
Silver City peripherally follows the political aspirations of a
Colorado gubernatorial candidate, the not-very-subtly named Dickie Pilager
(Chris Cooper). Even worse than a walking malapropism, Dickie is a total
cipher: there’s absolutely nothing behind his distinctly Bush-like folksy
demeanor and “on-message” stump gestures. Pilager is concisely summed up
by Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston, son of the late director John), an
ex-journalist turned investigative gumshoe for the Pilager campaign, who
notes while watching Dickie on television how much more impressive he
appears when muted.
Danny, not Dickie, is the movie's true focus. A former idealistic
reporter who was fired after his sources vanished on a corruption piece
and the paper he worked for got sued, Danny now delivers trite
intimidation messages (“you’re being watched”) to presumed Pilager
enemies, one of whom is the wannabe governor’s pot-smoking, bow-wielding
sister (Daryl Hannah). Danny’s also piecing together facts regarding the
death of a migrant worker whose demise may or may not be linked to the
Pilager family and its primary bankroller, modern-day cattle baron (and
egregious labor rights abuser) Wes Benteen (played with appropriate grit
by Kris Kristofferson). Danny’s also got romantic issues: His girlfriend
has left him and the love of his life, Nora (Maria Bello), is engaged to a
stereotypically slithery lobbyist (Billy Zane).
Not unlike Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes in Chinatown (a film to
which Silver City owes no small debt, via its winding plot,
festering cynicism and Huston family connection), Danny
finds that the more he learns, the less he wants to know. What he does
learn is that he can’t affect any change on the events around him, even if
he cared to -- and he just doesn’t have the resolve to see things through
to the bitter end. Even a hot tip he anonymously leaves at the office of a
Drudge Report-like website comes across as half-hearted.
The big difference between Chinatown and Silver City is
that the Watergate-era Chinatown was a ’30s period noir indirectly
commenting on its present, whereas Silver City is an explicit
observation in its moment. The problem with this is that no matter how
salient its comments regarding proactive watchdogs of the media and
politicians, the fact that Danny has thrown in the towel -- even though
that’s the entire point -- is defeatist and safe. By concentrating on a
non-player like Danny, and justifying Pilager’s lack of development as
self-evidence of the man’s inherent vacuity, Sayles takes the easy way
out. He’s not so much taking a stand as he’s slamming those who failed to
take a position during the last election. But wrapping his message inside
a toothless detective yarn deflates its effectiveness.
Silver City is neither a great genre piece nor a potent
political alarmist screed. John Sayles is certainly passionate about his
causes, but unfortunately he fails to articulate them as forcefully here
as he’s done in the past. Fortunately, Matewan and Men With Guns
are readily available on home video.
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