Political Film Society - Newsletter #207 - September 20, 2004

September 20, 2004


Silver CityIf documentaries shaped public opinion, Control Room, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Corporation, The Hunting of the President, Outfoxed, and Bush's Brain would have already sewed up the election for John Kerry. The feature film Silver City appears to be an indictment of the naïveté of President George W. Bush that goes far beyond such recent documentaries. However, director John Sayles, who has won two of the four times when his films have been nominated for Political Film Society awards, sees the popularity of Bush in a much more problematized context. In a television interview, he explains that a large percentage of the American people want political problems to be simplified for them so that their leaders can solve them and thereby relieve them from getting involved in anything more than voting. They elect mascots, that is, affable, boyish charmers who mediate between the voters and those who understand the complexities of public policy while fronting for those who have the money and want to maximize their profits by holding onto political power. The truly powerful, in other words, give only lip service to democracy, and Americans prefer to be fooled rather than enlightened. The problem, according to Sayles, is that the cost of electing simpletons must be paid later on, whether in the form of a budget debt, environmental degradation, or a functionally illiterate working class. The film Silver City depicts a candidate for governor of Colorado, Richard "Dim Dickie" Pilager (played by Chris Cooper), who is the spitting image of George W. in terms of his twang and his inability to think on his feet. (The film is loosely based on W's first campaign for governor of Texas). Pilager's campaign manager is Chuck Raven (played by Richard Dreyfuss).

When the film begins, Pilager is making a TV spot at Arápajo Lake, Colorado. After casting a fishing rod into the lake, he hooks an object that turns out to be the dead body of an illegal Mexican alien. Raven immediately orders the relocation of the venue and summons a police officer, whom he instructs to keep a secret about the connection between the candidate and the body. Soon, Raven has hired a private detective agency to investigate whether the dead body has been planted to embarrass Pilager. Raven gives Danny O'Brien (played by Danny Huston), who is assigned to the case, three names to investigate. While Pilager continues to give carefully crafted speeches about "freedom," O'Brien pries open the sleazy secrets of state politics, wherein billionaire Wes Benteen (played by Kris Kristofferson) has anointed Pilager to become governor, just as he has made his father Jud (played by Michael Murphy) a U.S. Senator, so that he can make several more billions, especially by developing a new town, Silver City, around an abandoned silver mine into which toxic waste has been dumped. What starts as a whodunit becomes an exposé of the way in which the rich and powerful rule the state by bribery, intimidation, pandering to prejudices of naïve voters--and murder. Perhaps the most memorable gems in the film are Benteen's frank admission that he wants to rape the environment to amass more profits, Raven's stagemanaging of Pilger's campaign rhetoric, and the way in which the press is discredited and marginalized as an instrument to check the abuse of power. The final scene offers filmviewers a video postcard sample of the environmental degradation that has afflicted thousands of lakes, rivers, and streams throughout the United States. The Political Film Society, accordingly, has nominated Silver City for an award as best film in 2004 to raise consciousness about the need for greater democracy. MH