Silver City

A columnist for Another Newspaper has described John Sayles’s Silver City as “a Bush-bashing work that is more than Bush-bashing.” Yes, it’s also brain-bashing. Like all Sayles’s movies, that is, it has a message — a message to which all the events and characters of the film obviously owe their existence and of which they are mere illustrations — and this message is used as a blunt instrument with which the director belabors his audience from beginning to end. It is not a pleasant experience. I have had this feeling of disgust before on coming out of Sayles’s movies, but there has usually also been a sense that the author is someone who might be capable of making a good movie. No more. I shall never again go to see a John Sayles movie willingly.

One consequence of making the movie back to front — that is, message first, plot and characters afterwards — is that one feels so hectored and bullied and preached at that it would be impossible to care about the characters even if they were better drawn.When after almost two hours it looked as if the hero, played by Danny Huston (son of John) were in a situation of mortal peril, I found myself desperately hoping that he wouldn’t pull through. This had nothing to do with his left wing politics but only with the fact that I was sick of him and the whole intrigue which he was supposedly investigating. In a good movie, an investigation would naturally leave you in some doubt as to its outcome. This one does not. It is too obviously made up by Sayles only to be investigated — and to lead to entirely predictable conclusions. Altogether, the film’s moral and political schematic is way, way too familiar.

Let me put it to you this way. On one side the movie presents us with a property-developing tycoon (Kris Kristofferson), a right-wing senator (Michael Murphy), the senator’s idiot son (Chris Cooper), a candidate for governor, and the Karl Rove-like Machiavellian handler (Richard Dreyfuss) managing the son’s campaign. On the other side there is Danny, an idealistic journalist looking into the death of an illegal immigrant worker, Danny’s beautiful ex-girlfriend and fellow idealistic journalist (Maria Bello) and the most idealistic journalist of them all, the proprietor of a left-wing website (Tim Roth). Where do you think the investigation will lead? Who do you think are the good guys and who the bad? And in case that’s not enough of a hint for you, I can also tell you that the senator and the foot-in-mouth gubernatorial candidate — obviously the designated hittee standing in for a certain President who himself remains nameless — are named Pilager. Sayles, I should have mentioned, doesn’t do subtlety.

Nor does he do humor. Dickie Pilager’s Bush-like rhetorical stumbles — “if you do the crime you are going to have to, um, take your lumps” or “Junior can’t read if he’s high on crack” (which is his reply to a reporter’s question about his own drug use) — just aren’t funny enough, though sometimes Sayles’s own earnest moralizing elicits an unintended laugh. There is another Pilager, for instance, a sister played by Darryl Hannah. She is supposed to be embittered over the fact that her dad, the senator, didn’t allow her to have an abortion when she got pregnant as a teenager — because he had to pander to his right wing supporters — and so ruined her career as an Olympic ice skater. The fiend! Will those pro-lifers stop at nothing? At the same time, of course, she is a brave single mother to the fruit of her youthful passion — even though the child, now grown, is supposed to have been such a poor exchange for an Olympic medal that she no longer speaks to the rest of the family. But she gets her revenge against them by sexual promiscuity and occasional and random threats of violence.

From one so determined to shock as she is, by the way, it sounds odd to say the least to hear the lament: “One president is caught getting a b.j. in the Oval Office and the next rigs the election and gets away with it. We have lost the capacity to be shocked by anything anymore.”

Oh, come on! Try a little harder.

But like all the other actors, Miss Hannah is just Sayles’s ventriloquist’s dummy, another chance for him to tell us what he thinks, and so her character doesn’t need any plausibility of her own.

Sayles, like so many others of the “progressive” minded, is pushing a particular political point of view, which is basically that the world is a Manichaean struggle between the forces of good, including all preservers of the environment, ex officio, and the forces of evil, including all developers and right-wing politicians ditto. This is just childish. Only the fact that the overwhelming majority of movie critics are also riders of Sayles’s various political hobby-horses can be preventing them from saying so and dismissing him as a propagandist so boring that he makes Michael Moore look interesting.

Someone should tell Mr Sayles that if you want to be politically serious you have to start from the proposition that there is really something to disagree about — and therefore that there are men of good will on both sides. To treat those you disagree with as vicious and corrupt is just a form of mud-slinging and hatred. And it can only produce cinematic junk. If Sayles were a man of action, perhaps he would be advocating civil war. But as he is only an intellectual he has nothing to offer but a peek at the private psychodrama of the self-righteous. God knows we’ve seen enough of that already this election season.

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