By Stephanie Zacharek
By Michael Atkinson
By Chris Packham
By Kevin Dilmore
By Amy Nicholson
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Inkoo Kang
By Heather Baysa
In this hour of enmity and bitterness, we Americans appear to be totally fed up with each other. Post-9/11 and mid-Iraq, the national political debate has been reduced to a nasty civil war that ruins friendships, stops casual dinner chats cold and, if I don't miss my guess, gladdens the black hearts of misanthropes from Bangor to San Diego. On the right, we've got the Bible-thumping radical nationalists, who see John Kerry as a traitor and hip-hop as a sure sign of the apocalypse -- people who would happily nuke both Najaf and Paris. On the left, we've got the outraged Bush-bashers, who believe Dubya hijacked the 2000 election, then misled us into a vengeful war that's shattered our alliances, crippled the economy and ruined our reputation in the family of nations. Is it extreme to suggest that they would -- okay, that we would -- delight in the spectacle of Donald Rumsfeld handcuffed to a goat for a couple of hours in Abu Ghraib prison?
Wherever you stand amid the bloodiest, most divisive domestic brawl since 1968, one ugly fact is plain: Thanks to Internet addiction and media bombardment, the corruption of our political process is more or less complete. The bottom line is that America's new war of ideologies is being fought less by voters than by the fervent propagandists who would manipulate us. The right has got talk radio, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. The left fires back with the New York Times, an army of bloggers and, just as box-office receipts for Fahrenheit 9/11 reach an astonishing $150 million, a ceaseless barrage of anti-administration movies -- political documentaries and feature films -- that seek to counteract the daily brayings of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly.
Both sides publish argumentative books and incendiary journals of opinion. Ann Coulter is unlikely to sit on the same shelf with Al Franken, and the Weekly Standard would be loath to share a coffee table with the Nation. Both sides also have a far more potent weapon of mass distraction at their disposal: those allegedly non-partisan "527" ads. This new plague of agitprop includes both the swift-boat calumnies and the left-leaning fulminations of MoveOn.org. Thus have the Madison Avenue hucksters hit a new low, peddling election-year crack on electronic street corners. The budgets are gargantuan, each dollar dedicated to intensifying the fog of war.
Given this crush of political information and misinformation, it's a good bet the voters -- left and right -- are starting to tune out everything. Before that happens, though, let's have a look at the latest piece of election-year entertainment. The new John Sayles movie, Silver City, set and shot here in Colorado, is downright bracing, and it has the kind of dramatic acumen the blunt propagandists can only dream about. There's no mistaking its liberal, or progressive, stance. But it this is neither a bag of tricks like Fahrenheitnor a self-righteous rant in the style of the radio shouters.
Thanks to his adolescent humor and relentless sniping, Michael Moore provided a bigger jolt of catharsis to angry Democrats. But Sayles's work will probably have more staying power. The difference between scathing polemics like Fahrenheit and Bush's Brain (an indictment of chief White House political advisor Karl Rove) and Silver City is the difference between the crude scrawl of a child's cartoon and the depth of a Van Gogh. Even if you're a right-to-lifer who refuses to drink Beaujolais, Sayles's canny observations on the misuses of power, the behavior of clueless voters and the missteps of the media will hit home. Such stuff is endemic at both political extremes, and in that sense, at least, the film is admirably non-partisan.
Silver City's nitwit villain is one Dickie Pilager (Sayles veteran Chris Cooper), a candidate for the governorship of Colorado who's been molded from the clay of stupidity by a ruthless political Svengali called Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) and a scheming father, Senator Judd Pilager (Michael Murphy), who has no particular affection for the son. "He's a fucking disaster when he's off the script," the good senator says of his boy. Just so. Poor Dickie struggles mightily with basic English (although he does know the word "wrong-doers"), and his grasp of the crucial issues wouldn't daunt a college freshman. He's not exactly the pre-programmed robot Liev Schreiber plays in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, but you wouldn't mistake him for a deep thinker, either.
The general resemblance between these characters and, say, the current occupant of the White House, the aforementioned Mr. Rove and the elder Mr. Bush is unmistakable. But if you are inclined to plug crass political animals from the other side of the fight into these slots, they'll fit fine, too. Sayles is no mere hatchet man, and he's interested in more than topical satire. As in his previous films, which have dramatized such social issues as labor strife in the West Virginia coal fields (Matewan) and race relations in Texas (Lone Star), he means to give us the full tableau, meticulously detailed. Silver City wrestles with the ambiguities of public ambition and the complexities behind political chicanery; its vehicles are a mystery plot that rivals The Big Sleep and Chinatownfor head-spinning intricacy and a huge cast of characters (a Sayles trademark) who embody every kind of political and social viewpoint. Happy to say, Sayles is a master of nuance -- not a bad thing to be in any political season, despite what the Kerry-bashers may think.
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