Director John Sayles has never been afraid to go where other filmmakers fear to tread, and this is certainly true of his fifteenth film. The story revolves around a political campaign for Governor of Colorado that reveals the degradation of the political process in contemporary America, the corruption of the language of public discourse, the docility of the press, the power of wealthy contributors and corporations, the cowboy domination of the environment, the abuse of the poor and immigrants, and the difficulty so many citizens have maintaining a zeal for justice in cynical times.

Since there are over 20 characters in the drama, we have included a detailed plot summary in our review. Silver City runs 128 minutes and is rated R for language. This Values & Visions Film Guide explores key themes and asks you to relate what's happening on the screen to your own experience of politics and American life.

Danny Huston as Danny and James Gammon as Joe Skaggs

1. The Adventure of Doing What You Can Do

"Give yourself the adventure of doing what you can do, with what you have, even if you have nothing but the adventure of trying. How much better than standing in a corner with your back to a wall," conservation activist Mardy Murie said in a commencement address given in 1974.

  • What are your first impressions of Danny O'Brien, the former reporter who has become a private investigator? How does the information about his past provided through his conversations with Mitch Paine and Nora influence your opinion of him? What is the animating force that makes him want to connect all the dots in the case he is working on?

  • With which one character in the film do you most identify? Why? Do you see yourself as a person willing to take risks in order to make a difference in the world? What would you say to those who end up standing in a corner with their backs to a wall?

2. Fostering True Democracy

In The Soul of Politics, Jim Wallis writes: "We start by subjecting all projects, initiatives, decisions, and policies to new criteria: whether they make justice more possible for all of us and especially for those on the bottom; whether they allow us to live in more harmony with the earth; and whether they increase the participation of all people in decision making. In other words, we must learn to judge our social and economic choices by whether they empower the powerless, protect the earth, and foster true democracy."

  • Identify at least three criticisms John Sayles makes about the contemporary political process through his portrait of the gubernatorial campaign of Dickie Pilager. What is gained and what is lost by the fact that the drama does not cover the other candidate at all? Why do you think Sayles made this decision?

  • Share your responses to Jim Wallis's three criteria by which to judge our social and economic choices. How will these criteria factor into your vote in upcoming elections?

Kris Kristofferson as Wes Benteen and Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager

3. America for Sale

A critical scene in the film depicts a conversation between the wheeler dealer and major campaign contributor Wes Benteen and Dickie Pilager. Here's what they say as they ride horseback through the Colorado wilderness:

Wes: Take a good look Dickie, what do you see?
Dickie: Mountains?
Wes: I see a big sign that says no Americans allowed.
Dickie: You do?
Wes: You look at a map. They got half the West under lock and key.
Dickie: They?
Wes: The Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, National Parks, The State.
Dickie: Right, right.
Wes: It's like a treasure chest waiting to be opened. Only there's a 500 pound bureaucrat sitting on it.
Dickie: Well, I'm a small government man.
Wes: That's why we chose you, son.

  • What do you learn about Wes Benteen from Mitch Paine and Karen Cross when Danny visits their website office? Share your responses to the encounter the investigative detective has with this corporate mogul at a fundraising party.

  • What can be done to lessen the land grabs and the power plays of influential and savvy men like Wes Benteen? What rules, written and unwritten, of the political system will have to be changed?

Richard Dreyfuss as Chuck Raven, Billy Zane as Chandler Tyson, and Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager

4. A Spiritual Democracy

"We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt. It is time to resist the simplistic, utilitarian view that what is good for business is good for humanity in all its complex web of relationships. A spiritual democracy is inspired by our own sense of what we can accomplish together, honoring an integrated society where the social, intellectual, physical and economic well-being of all is considered, not just the wealth and health of the corporate few." So writes activist Terry Tempest Williams on the open space of democracy.

  • The wind has been taken out of the sails of environmentalist Casey Lyle. Have you felt this way, or do you know people who do? What does his state of mind tell you about the strength and the resources needed to combat those who believe that what is good for business is good for humanity? Share your responses to the proposed Silver City planned community. What is really behind this project?

  • Discuss Terry Tempest Williams's statement that what is wrong with contemporary America is that democracy has been confused with capitalism. She lists some characteristics of a spiritual democracy. What other things would you include?

5. The Heart in the Presence of Power

"The heart is the house of empathy whose door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives, where we find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainty with strength, not fear, understanding this is all there is. The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power," writes Terry Tempest Williams.

  • What role does Nora play in the boldness with which Danny keeps pursuing the truth? Which character in the film has his or her heart opened? Share your heartfelt reactions to the plight of the illegal Mexicans in the story.

  • Whose pain do you feel the most in your community and your country?

Danny Huston as Danny O'Brien and Tony Guerra as Sal Lopez

6. The Murdered Fish and the Poisoned Water Sources

"Never counted in the costs of war are the dead birds, the charred animals, the murdered fish, incinerated insects, poisoned water sources, destroyed vegetation. Rarely mentioned is the arrogance of the human race toward other living things with which it shares this planet. All these are forgotten in the fight for markets and ideology. This arrogance will probably be the ultimate undoing of the human species," Arundhati Roy has written in War Talk.

  • Share your physical and emotional responses to the last scene in the film.

  • What can you do to counter the arrogance of humanity and its consequences?

7. How Big Is Your We?

"Dr. Beatrice Bruteau asks the right question, 'How big is your 'we?' Can we expand our vision of community beyond our skin, family, race, tribe, culture, country, and species? Spiritual life is more than what we believe, it also includes how we relate. Who is included in the 'we' and who is not? That is both a spiritual and a political question. How we answer it will likely determine our future," Jim Wallis has written in Who Speaks for God?

  • In what ways has Silver City helped enlarge your "we"?

  • Talk about the challenges you face in expanding your vision of community. What spiritual practices can be of help here?

Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager

This guide is one in a series of more than 200 Values & Visions Guides written by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Text copyright 2004 by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Photos courtesy of Newmarket Films. This guide is posted as a service to visitors to It may not be photocopied, reprinted, or distributed electronically without permission from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. For this permission and for a list of other guides in the Values & Visions series and ordering information, email your name and mailing address to: