Jeremiah Adams, a Jungian therapist, has observed: "Today, we Americans are faced with the cumulative effects of many generations of denial and neglect, the bloodline of an idealism that is masking dark propensities of our own human nature. The American ethos, an endearing yet naïve tendency to deny one's own share of human imperfection, has finally become a collective burden, embedded in our institutions, our nation's policies, and even in what we'd like to believe is our 'individualistic' national character."
The burdens of the American ethos comes through loud and clear in Silver City, writer/director John Sayles' fifteenth film. The storyline follows the fictional campaign for Governor of Colorado of a conservative candidate running under the slogan "One God, One Nation, One Family." Effectively using a film noir style, Sayles probes the shadow side of a community in the West where a wildly successful businessman wields incredible power and his manipulations have a startling effect on the lives of many people. In this thought-provoking work, Sayles offers cogent and timely insights into the warps of contemporary politics, the equation of big business with democracy and freedom, the manipulation of the media, the corruption of the language of public discourse, the wanton desecration of the environment, and the abuse of illegal immigrants.
Richard "Dickie" Pilger (Chris Cooper), the born-again son of Senator Jud Pilger (Michael Murphy) of Colorado, is making his first run for political office Governor. He has not yet mastered the difficult craft of being both smooth and authoritative in campaign appearances. While filming an ad about his environmental positions at a pristine-looking mountain lake, Dickie casts the line from his fishing pole and hooks a dead body. Convinced that someone has set the candidate up for embarrassment, Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), his shrewd campaign manager, immediately hires Grace Seymour's (Mary Kay Place) detective agency to scare three of the people he suspects may have been behind this incident. The job is given to Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston), a former reporter who was fired from his last job because of a bad source; he's still somewhat idealistic but is certainly cautious. Raven instructs him: "I want them confronted. Let them know they are being watched. Don't be subtle."
Meanwhile, Dickie shows his political inexperience in an informal interview with the press where he lists some of his priorities education, affordable housing, health care then fumbles when asked what isn't a priority: "What's not a priority is those matters which are of less of a not that they’re not important but if you're going to have a front-burner which is where you want your priorities, like, cooking, there needs to be something sitting on the back one. And that's where your other organizations, your church people and your organizations formed to help these things, will be happy to pitch in if only the government would get out of their way."
Danny visits Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), his former editor who now operates a fringe website that kicks up the dust in Colorado with its investigative reports. He knows the down-and-the-dirty about the three people Raven has targeted. Danny is impressed with Karen Cross (Thora Birch), who works for Paine and has a highly developed anger against the social injustices afoot in the state engineered by wealthy individuals.
Danny goes to the offices of Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), an ultra-conservative radio personality, and learns that he thinks Dickie is a mama's boy, a draft dodger, and a dimwit. This ferocious political animal refuses to be intimidated by Raven. In his investigations, Danny runs into Nora (Maria Bello), his former lover, a journalist who is now covering the statehouse and the governor's election. She has become cynical over the years and is dating Chandler Tyson (Billy Zane), a successful political lobbyist whose latest project is facilitating the Silver City planned community project being promoted by Grace Seymour's husband, Mort (David Clennon). Looking into the identity of the murder victim, Danny runs into Joe Skaggs (James Gammon), the Timberline County Sheriff whose brother he exposed as a corrupt figure in his reporter days.
Meanwhile, Dickie is learning what is expected of him by the funder of his campaign. In a critical scene, he goes riding with Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), a cattleman, mine owner, real estate developer, and utilities and media magnate. He is a power broker who sees the big picture in terms of much less government and a lot more privatization of key resources and industries. He's picked Dickie because he knows he will deliver what he is told to deliver once he becomes governor. The more places Danny checks out, the more he sees the shadowy hand of Benteen at work.
Another person on Raven's list of enemies is Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), who is now a volunteer tour guide at one of Colorado's exhibition mines. He gives Danny insights into why he lost his job as an EPA honcho and the secret environmental blunders connected with the mines. The dead man fished out of the lake turns out to be an undocumented migrant worker whose body is filled with cyanide. To find out more about him, Danny hires Tony Guerra (Sal Lopez) to do some detective work in the illegal immigrant community. Some final pieces of information about the Pilager clan come from Maddy (Daryl Hannah), the black sheep of the family who is a pothead, a former Olympic hopeful, and a woman with a penchant for trouble.
Writer and director John Sayles has made another sobering, complex, and multidimensional movie about politics and community in America. As he demonstrated with City of Hope, Matewan, and Sunshine State, he is not afraid to paint a broad canvas or to explore subjects viewed as too hot to handle by other less courageous filmmakers. The similarities between President George W. Bush and Dickie Pilager especially the verbal gaffes when not reading a script provide needed moments of humor. But Sayles is deadly serious about the dangers that ensue when savvy political operatives such as Raven degrade the language by Orwellian tricks: "attack campaign" becomes "public information outreach," "provide them" becomes "advise them," and his candidate's promise to "maintain cultural equilibrium" at a Christian Right gathering is loosely translated as meaning "no handouts for homos." In the spirit of such film noir classics as Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1973), Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973) and Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974), Silver City explores the moral rot that lies behind many of the most intractable problems of our times. This is a film that must be seen and discussed by all concerned citizens.