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Sayles Skewers.

There's something exhilarating about a film that revels in its lack of subtlety. Demonstrating the sort of cinematic self-assurance that can only be summoned by a director confident in both his craft and his politics, John Sayles's new picture hammers away at the Bush Administration with artful abandon.

Silver City, which opened September 17, is ostensibly the story of Dickie Pilager (played by Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper), a gubernatorial hopeful whose rise to power is preordained by birthright and orchestrated by a Machiavellian adviser named Chuck Raven (fellow Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss). This storyline, of course, bears more than a passing resemblance to the biography of the current occupant of the White House--a fact that Sayles does not free from.

"He's very much based on George Bush when he was running for governor of Texas the first time," says Sayles, the acclaimed director of Eight Men Out, Lone Star, and many other films. "Dickie Pilager, like George Bush, he's a neophyte candidate. His father is a famous politician. He's got a huge amount of money behind him. He's not especially cut out for the public part of the job. He's not especially articulate. And he's got this take-no-prisoners campaign manager very much based on Karl Rove."

To be sure, this is not a flattering fictionalization of Bush. Pilager is a malleable stumblebum who's never met a sentence he can't mangle. (A Pilager bumper sticker reads, "Vote Pilager: Honesty. Integrity. Articulacy.") The candidate himself doesn't fully grasp the implications of the regressive tax policies and harmful environmental deregulations he favors, but he knows what his financial backers want, and he's happy to oblige.

When it takes a break from skewering Bush, Silver City spins a compelling detective story. Danny O'Brien (played by Danny Huston, the son of famed director John Huston) is a reporter-turned-private-investigator confronted with a host of troubles. First off, he finds evidence of unsavory ties between the Pilager campaign and a corporate heavy, played by Kris Kristofferson. Then O'Brien lands in the midst of an unexpected reunion with former girlfriend Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello). Allardyce is a good reporter, but her work threatens to be compromised by the financial transactions of her newspaper's parent company. Along the way, Sayles manages to grapple with environmental degradation, media consolidation, and corporate malfeasance. Though the film's resolution is open-ended, progressive moviegoers will get a chuckle at the comeuppance dealt the Pilager/Bush character.

"We started only a year ago, and we made this very quickly, very specifically, to come out before the election," Sayles says. "We thought it was important to get it out, to get people thinking about these things and consider what's going on in the country."

He isn't bashful. "I'm definitely partisan--I'm partisan for democracy," adds Sayles. "I don't think that anything the Bush Administration is doing has been really good for democracy." Sayles points out how Bush has sabotaged the regulatory apparatus. "For the head of the agency that's in charge of worker safety, he appointed somebody who went around trying to prove in court that there's no such thing as repetitive stress injury. That's exactly the opposite of what that agency should be doing and who should be running that agency. And the same thing is happening with the EPA and a lot of these other agencies."

Beyond Bush, Sayles has serious problems with the way elections are conducted in America and the lack of responsiveness in our system. "Just who are the constituents of our politicians?" he asks. "Are they rank-and-file voters, or are they these large corporations that do an awful lot of the campaign financing to the point where we literally have lobbyists writing regulations? And so is that politician an employee of the public or is he an employee of the people who financed him? A lot of lip service is being paid to democracy but not a whole lot of action. The people who actually do vote are pretty secondary if they're even considered at all."

Though Silver City is perhaps his most overtly political film, this is not new territory for Sayles. In many ways it feels like a bookend to his directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus Seven. Released with no fanfare in 1980, that film tells the story of a group of friends who've reunited for a weekend in New Hampshire ten years after they were arrested on the way to a Washington protest. At once idealistic about the role and responsibilities of democracy's citizens and skeptical of the qualifications and motivations of society's rule-makers, the picture announced Sayles's worldview. In the years that followed, the director dealt sympathetically with labor unions (Matewan, released in '87), citizens caught in the middle of pitched battles over gentrification (City of Hope, '91), race and substance abuse (Passion Fish, '92), and small-town corruption in the shadow of the Mexican border (Lone Star, '96).

Sayles, who just turned fifty-four, has worked on a bigger canvas as the years have passed. Always a fan of ensemble casts, he has lately favored sprawling narratives that touch on a host of his perennial concerns--most of which derive from his class-consciousness. The son of teachers, he grew up in the old factory town of Schenectady, New York, and describes himself as "a class warrior." Says Sayles: "I feel like the basic two classes are the ruling class--and you just follow the money to figure out who they are--and everybody else."

Silver City arrives at a time when a number of films--Fahrenheit 9/11, Bush's Brain, and Uncovered." The War on Iraq, among others--have raised questions about the Bush team. Sayles says he does not think a single film could be the deciding factor in ejecting Bush from the White House.

"But," he said, "these films are part of the cultural conversation. Figure you're at a restaurant, and there's something you don't know about or haven't thought much about when a big argument breaks out at the next table. You can't help but to overhear what they're saying, and then you start to think about it. That's the way they'll be influential."

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate.com, and other publications.
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Author:Canfield, Kevin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Nov 1, 2004
Words:1036
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