The Politics of John Sayles’ 


Special to FILMS FOR TWO®
by Alan Waldman

I really liked John Sayles’ new political satire/detective mystery SILVER CITY and I highly recommend it, although roughly half of America’s film critics disagree with me. I find it interesting that there was almost universal love for the first 13 movies Sayles directed among mainstream critics, but they have either panned or been lukewarm toward three of his last four (LIMBO, CASA DE LOS BABYS and SILVER CITY; most of them liked SUNSHINE STATE). As you can see from the links, Jan and Rich of FILMS FOR TWO liked all 10 “Sayles calls” that they’ve made—especially LONE STAR, MATEWAN and SUNSHINE STATE.


1. CITY OF HOPE (1991)
3. LONE STAR (1996)
4. SILVER CITY (2004)
6. MATEWAN (1987)
7. BABY, IT’S YOU (1983)
8. PASSION FISH (1992)
9. EIGHT MEN OUT (1988)

Most world critics agree with me that John Sayles is one of the most original, most principled, most talented and most important American independent filmmakers of the past quarter-century. He was nominated for two Oscars (for writing LONE STAR and PASSION FISH), four Writers Guild honors, five Independent Spirit Awards, an Edgar, a Golden Globe and 33 other awards (eventually winning 18 of these). Sayles has also won or been nominated for major awards at film festivals in Britain, Spain, Belgium, Cannes, Deauville, Tokyo, Sundance, Florida, Texas, Seattle, Los Angeles, Taos and New York City. Even more remarkable: those awards and nominations were earned by 13 separate works of his.

Before explaining why I loved SILVER CITY, let me suggest two reasons that some of the other critics panned it. First, many of them, poor dears, found the combined genre of mystery and political satire confusing or distressing, especially when further complicated by [gasp!] a love story. Fate forefend that we should offer audiences more than just one “high-concept” in this era of hackneyed flicks for acned dudes ‘n’ chicks, created by fearful corporate clods! 

But their second quibble is one that I completely share. SILVER CITY cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who won two Oscars and was nominated for three others prior to 1991, but who hasn’t done much of note since then) must have gotten bored, because he managed to sell Sayles on the atrocious idea of shooting this movie in garish high-contrast. This bizarre lighting scheme puts virtually every character’s face in shadow—oft-times in front of a blazing over-lit background. This makes an otherwise great movie sometimes unpleasant to actually watch.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons why I greatly enjoyed SILVER CITY. It’s a very intelligent, carefully observed, socially conscious film in which Sayles makes incisive statements about corporate greed-heads who care nothing for public safety or the welfare of their workers, and also about how venal politicians sell their small souls to such snakes. It deals with other contemporary issues, such as exploitation of migrant labor, environmental destruction, journalistic ethics and racial prejudice. Sayles also wreaks merry hell spoofing the phoniness and shallowness of George W. Bush represented here by a Colorado gubernatorial candidate (played with dundering deliciousness by Oscar winner Chris Cooper) and the malevolence of Bush puppeteer Karl Rove (laudably limned by Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss). 

Plot parallels with today’s political scene abound. The Cooper character (drolly named “Dickie Pilager”) is the dimwit son of a U.S. Senator (Michael Murphy) who uses his name and clout to bolster his offspring’s campaign. Dickie loses track of the lines he has memorized and mangles the English language as he lies about policies that will endanger lives despoil the environment and further enrich the Svengali billionaire (Kris Kristofferson) who finances and dictates the course of his campaign. For instance Dicke asserts that the solution to many of Colorado’s problems is "privatization"—which will so he claims “liberate” the state from the crippling effects of government environmental worker safety and public health regulations. 

Sayles has a gift with actors, and he has guided good performances from his typically large cast. While several cast members such as Chris Cooper, Daryl Hannah, and Kris Kristofferson have appeared in Sayles features before, others like Maria Bello, Thora Birch, David Clennon, Danny Huston, and Tim Roth are new to the Sayles team. (Remember Clennon? He played TV’s sleaziest villain ever, Miles Drentell on THIRTYSOMETHING, and finally gets his comeuppance here.)

The central story has Dreyfuss hiring gumshoe Huston to discover why a dead Mexican laborer was found in a scenic lake where Cooper is about to be photographed doing a misleading pro-nature TV spot. (In time, we will learn that Cooper—working hand-in-cesspool with the callous killer capitalist Kris Kristofferson and dupe developer David Clennon—is actually a vicious despoiler of the environment.) Huston’s journey brings him in contact with a cornucopia of colorful characters, including a vengeful Rush Limbaugh clone (Miguel Ferrera), a ruthless coyote (Luis Saguar), a washed-up whistleblower (Ralph Waite), two crusading internet journalists (Tim Roth and Thora Birch), a slimy lobbyist (Billy Zane), and a crooked sheriff (James Gammon), not to mention Dickie’s bitter sister (Daryl Hannah). 

Just as MACBETH and other Shakespearean tragedies effectively interspersed drama with comic relief, so Sayles interposes the Bush/Rove/Halliburton spoofs with the serious social misdeeds that Huston uncovers on his crime-solving search. One of Sayles’ great strengths, throughout his career, has been his ability to create three-dimensional characters. His heroes and villains are never all good or all bad, but have motivations that define them and give them dimension. One of SILVER CITY’s real strengths of is that Sayles has populated it with a score of interesting and surprising characters.

Sayles has dealt with the major themes of SILVER CITY in many of his other movies, although this is his most satirical work—due to its terrifically observed Rove-ridicule and Bush-burlesquing. The gifted Schenectady-born writer-director-editor compellingly went after gluttonous developers in SUNSHINE STATE, took on sleazy fixers in EIGHT MEN OUT, powerfully examined exploitation of employees in MATEWAN, and focused on both government corruption and the mistreatment of Mexican laborers in LONE STAR. Sayles dealt incisively and dramatically with political chicanery and corporate immorality in what I consider his masterpiece—and the best film I’ve ever seen on big-city corruption—CITY OF HOPE

SILVER CITY is a great “fictional” partner to the host of excellent political documentaries that have enriched an otherwise drab summer full of noisy, imitative, moronic fare targeted at teens. My favorites were the heartbreaking, highly enlightening and very educational THE CORPORATION and Michael Moore’s latest and greatest political doc, FAHRENHEIT 9-11, which examines both the foibles of “Shrub” and the tremendous harm he has done in pursuit of his family’s financial interests.

SILVER CITY moves briskly, offering us a compelling mystery (in the vein of CHINATOWN), an off-beat love story, and a thoroughly enjoyable parody of a puppet politician and the ravenous power mongers who manipulate him for private gain.

John Sayles is one of the few American filmmakers who make intelligent movies for grown-ups. Generally, you have to look abroad for mentally stimulating fare—particularly during the long, violent, mindless movie summers. So, I urge you not to let any jaded local reviewer’s put-downs keep you away from this richly satisfying film. And if you have missed any of the Sayles pics named above, I encourage you to rent or Netflix ‘em at your earliest convenience.

© Alan Waldman (10/1/04)

Childcare and avionics authority Alan “Oops” Waldman has published more than 2000 articles in more than 50 newspapers and magazines, from Azerbaijan to Amsterdam to Anaheim—on topics ranging from political chicanery to prostitution to Monty Python. Unknown as a playwright, pianist and poet/pauper, Waldman is completely undistinguished as a composer (although his pop song “Love Will Fry Your Ass” once had a small but
fervid following in Honolulu). His recent collection of provocative but under
reported news items, left of center opinion pieces and up to the minute presidential polling stats can be found at Frog Blog.