Film and TV

America's Spinning

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 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 Fahrenheit nor 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 Chinatown for 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.

In scene one, Dickie Pilager is shooting a campaign ad at a Rocky Mountain lake, extolling the virtues of clean air and clean water (in truth, he cares about neither) when he unexpectedly hooks a corpse with his fishing equipment. From this surprise springs a tangle of events that covers the spectrum of American politics in the era of stark polarities. While the Pilager people try to limit damage from the fishing incident, Sayles opens a can of worms and introduces us to his players. Chief among them is a former Denver newspaper reporter named Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston) now working as a private detective, but no less idealistic these days than when he was investigating malfeasance for a beacon of journalistic integrity called the Monitor. Through Danny's eyes and Danny's sensibility, Sayles explores Silver City's deeper concerns -- the debasement of our politics, corporate power-mongering, the corruption of the social contract.

The cameras focus on an array of Colorado sights -- assorted mountain vistas, Denver's City and County Building, the Oxford Hotel, Union Station, early morning at a bar on Larimer Street -- and a wealth of victims, perpetrators and observers. The principals, all expertly played in the Saylesian-ensemble style, include Danny's ex-girlfriend Nora (The Cooler's Maria Bello), a suspicious reporter who's now living with a cynical lobbyist; a merciless industrialist (Kris Kristofferson) with skeletons in his closet; and a mining engineer with a troubled conscience. We have a conservative radio yakker with reason to detest the Pilagers, a pair of undocumented Mexican laborers with information about the dead man, and a brilliant restaurant chef (Sal Lopez) who's willing to double as Danny O'Brien's sous sleuth in the barrio. We also meet Dickie Pilager's self-destructive sister, Maddie (Daryl Hannah), who understands too well the motives of her family. "People have lost their ability to be scandalized," Maddie laments. Her observation might apply (about equally?) to the cavorting of Bill Clinton in the Oval Office and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

As he entertains us with a solid murder mystery involving corruption and environmental despoilment, Sayles fashions a contemporary parable far richer and more subtle than any rant by Michael Moore or Michael Savage. Has our political process, as Ambrose Bierce suggested of all politics, become "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles"? Is it, as journalist James Reston once observed, "based on the indifference of the majority"? Sayles poses these questions and others, in a mood that seems less angry than mournful, yet always buoyed by his wit. In a political season poisoned by the spin-meisters, Silver City is a cautionary tale that renders the debate more intelligent and more civil than we have any right to expect, so far have we fallen. Whatever the outcome on November 2, heaven help us in the aftermath. The personal bloodletting is not likely to cease on Inauguration Day.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo