Dickie Pilager is on his way to winning the election for governor of Colorado, when a body washes up out of the sea during the filming of a promotional broadcast. Concerned that it could be an attempt to sabotage Pilager’s election bid, campaign manager Chuck Raven hires private detective Danny O'Brien to warn off some suspected saboteurs. Unfortunately for Raven, Danny was once an investigative journalist and soon his snooping into the identity of the corpse is uncovering dark secrets about Pilager and his financial backers.
John Sayles’ latest movie returns the indie maverick to the multi-layered, ensemble territory of City of Hope and the great Lone Star – it doesn’t quite hit those heights, but in some ways is an even more ambitious film. Here Sayles welds biting political satire onto shaggy-dog noir; there’s a bit too much of the latter and not enough of the former, but Silver City remains an intelligent, entertaining yarn.
There’s a terrific cast – so many great actors in fact that some get sidelined into fairly insubstantial roles. Danny Huston takes the lead as the downtrodden private dick – once a roving reporter, O'Brien’s life has been on the skids ever since he was set up and sacked from his paper, losing the love-of-his life, political writer Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), in the process. O'Brien cannot resist taking his job much further than he should, and his investigations leads him into a tangled web that involves illegal immigrant workers, unsafe mining operations, contaminated water supplies and the development of a hillside town called Silver City. Huston provides an easy, laconic charm, and he has a nice repartee with Sal Lopez, playing the Latino chef whom O'Brien hires to help him investigate within the local Mexican community.
O'Brien's nemesis is Pilager’s campaign manager Chuck Raven, and this fiery, sardonic character allows Richard Dreyfuss to give one of his best performances for years. Raven is the type of guy who'll be your best pal while things are going well but doesn't spare a thought about crushing anyone who stands in his way; Dreyfuss and Huston only share a couple of scenes but they are charged with a delicious bite, both actors relishing Sayles' barbed dialogue. And then there's Dickie Pilager himself – a bumbling, homely man with a vacuous speech-giving style and a shady gang of well-connected moneymen behind him. Yep, it's George W. Bush in all but name, and Chris Cooper's dead-on impersonation is by turns hilarious and sinister.
As a detective story, Silver City lacks focus, and the sheer number of characters and subplots mean that the narrative is often somewhat jumbled. There are no great twists, and indeed O'Brien's ultimate discoveries are more the result of coincidence than journalistic instinct. But Sayles pulls no punches in exposing the hypocrisies of political campaigning, the way that at the root of the politicians' grand promises lie corporate corruption and old fashioned financial gain. At the centre of all this is billionaire property developer Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), who is bankrolling the Pilager campaign and has so much money and influence that he fears nothing from Pilager's foes, who include foul-mouthed right-wing radio jock Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer) and Dickie's ostracised wild-child sister (a wonderfully venomous Daryl Hannah).
Sayles also takes aim at the weak, powerless media. Nora is the only high-profile reporter bothering to ask Piliger uncomfortable questions, and those journalists who previously challenged the status quo have been sidelined to other professions (like O'Brien) or into ineffectual internet journalism (O'Brien's old editor, played Tim Roth). Sayles offers no answers, and in Roth's character seems to acknowledge the futility of the outspoken little man standing up to those who govern. But that doesn't dilute the bite of Silver City, and it remains a potent satire, using subtlety and wit where someone like Michael Moore can only bludgeon and harangue. A definite vote winner.
A career as a writer (The Howling, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute) and script doctor financed his subsequent movies: lesbian love story Lianna, romance Baby It's You, offbeat sci-fi The Brother from Another Planet, union drama Matewan, baseball scandal Eight Men Out, ensemble piece City of Hope, Lone Star, Men with Guns, survival adventure Limbo, Sunshine State, political satire Silver City and war drama Amigo. Also in small roles as an actor (Something Wild, Malcolm X, Matinee).