Dimwitted Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) is running for governor of Colorado. During a routine environmental commercial shoot, Dickie accidentally fishes a dead illegal immigrant out of the water, springing his campaign manager (Richard Dreyfuss) into action. The Pilager campaign hires private investigator Danny O'Brien (Danny Houston), a disgraced former journalist, to find out the origins of the body and put the kibosh on the story. As Danny makes his way around the various locals looking for clues, he uncovers a greater conspiracy behind Dickie's goals for government, as well as the danger the local ecosystem is in due to rampant greed.
"Silver City" (IMDb listing), the latest film from accomplished writer/director John Sayles, makes no bones about its purpose. Sayles has always been a message-minded filmmaker, traveling across the globe to investigate injustices and conflicts ("Sunshine State," "Men with Guns," "Lone Star"), but here, in this year of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and countless other White House documentaries, Sayles turns his high beams on the man of the hour: George W. Bush.
Well, not Bush exactly. In "City," the character is called Dickie Pilager, a bumbling government boob, thrust into office by corporate backers who need an inside man to erase environmental laws and help grease the flow of money away from the lower class. Not terribly subtle of Sayles, but a point well taken. "City" isn't strictly an attack on the Bush administration, but in classic broad Sayles style it reaches into the plight of Mexican illegals, the death of newspaper journalism credibility, and the environmental damage being exacted on the Midwest. It's a plateful of ideas and subplots, but Sayles is such a world-class filmmaker that "City" is never confusing or overextended.
However, the Bush similarities in the story are easily the weakest points in "City." Sayles seems to be pushing too hard to form parallels, disrupting the smooth tone the rest of the picture maintains. This plot thread is also the grabbiest, making broad jokes that have been done to death, and satire that just isn't as fresh as it was two years ago. Sayles has never been behind the curve like this before, allowing a stale wind to blow through "City" when laser-precise lampooning is needed.
The traditional large-scale Sayles cast is uniformly great (which includes Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah, Maria Bello, Billy Zane, Sal Lopez, James Gammon, and Ralph Waite), though his choice for a leading man is a strange one. Danny Houston gets a rare chance to step up to leading man status in "City," and his performance is a bizarre mix of used car salesman and bewildered supporting actor. Flashing a million-watt smile, Houston's O'Brien is a peculiar investigator, preferring charisma and deference to traditional snooping skills. With a cast of famous faces, Houston stands out like sandals with a three-piece suit. I hope that one day Sayles can sit down and explain why this performance is so strange.
"Silver City" ends on a very vivid, effective note about the state of corporate pollution that almost completely mutes the film's considerable flaws. "City" is easily the weakest film to come out of John Sayles, but he is still head and shoulders above his competition.
Filmfodder Grade: B