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Silver City (150 x 150)March 2, 2007   

In “Silver City” director John Sayles uses mining, arguably one of the most environmentally toxic processes of industrialized society, as a backdrop to expose the multiple and often hidden layers of profit-driven power.  Instead of a movie about election fraud, it’s about the fraud of elections. 

Director: John Sayles 
Anarchists’ Convention, New Market Films and Columbia Pictures 
124 mins.  2004 

Take “Chinatown” and revamp it for the 21st century. Instead of water rights, director John Sayles uses mining, arguably one of the most environmentally toxic processes of industrialized society, as a backdrop to expose the multiple and often hidden layers of profit-driven power. Its victims tell the story – from fearless journalists to migrant workers to the wealthy daughter with a conscience, and to the poisoned fish. 

I rented Silver City expecting a movie about election fraud. The film jacket said, “Vote early. Vote often.” Instead, the film is about the fraud of elections – that candidates serve big business rather than the American people. 

Shocked by the 2000 Bush-Gore election, Sayles explains: “That story wasn’t about chads. It was about how many African Americans didn’t get to vote.” His outrage is parlayed through Maddie Pilager (Darryl Hannah), the candidate’s sister. She rejects hope that exposing the truth will change anything. “They catch one president getting a BJ in the Oval Office. The next one rigs the election and gets away with it. People have lost the ability to be scandalized.”

Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) is the candidate selected not for his brains or eloquence, but to “change the rules” so that a Colorado brownfield, Silver City, can be sold to developers. Billionaire Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) wants to dump “a pile of mine debris.” The real job of the candidate, though, is to open up Colorado’s pristine and protected public lands to resource extraction. Privatization is named as the culprit – that illusion of ownership enforced through violence on the rest of us – plants, animals and indigenous people. 

In “Silver City,” John Sayles artfully exposes the marriage of government and business, to the detriment of the common good, and the planet. The film admits that those who fight the good fight will suffer losses. Investigative journalist Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) suffers losses in his personal relationships, his self esteem and his career. Huston’s journalist, tho, is more upbeat and comedic than Jack Nicholson’s character in “Chinatown.” 

The parallels between George W. Bush and Dickie Pilager provide amusement – actor Chris Cooper nails W’s elocution. At the end, candidate Pilager’s speechmaking rises to the level of JFK’s style. Sayles can be applauded for the visually dramatic backdrop to this speech, even if it is scientifically nonsensical. 

Post-production interviews capture the hopelessness of those seeking to assert public control of corporations gone mad [1]. Richard Dreyfuss, who plays Pilager’s campaign manager in the film, asserts, “Until people are personally affected by it, they’re not going to care about it.” A recent folk song on National Public Radio begs to differ with this view: “It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we know the fight ain’t fair.” 

But such pessimism and cynicism offer no solutions. We get what we accept: corporate assertions of absolute authority and ownership of our elections, as well as land, air and water itself. As long as we believe the fight isn’t winnable, then we’ve already lost. 

Truly, it’s not that US citizens don’t care or aren’t scandalized. We all earn our food and shelter by working within the very system that pursues profits over the health of the planet and the rights of indigenous peoples. What “We the People” lack is an alternative vision of a sustainable society, and a winning strategy to implement it. 

Like “Chinatown”, John Sayles’ “Silver City” exposes the truth of the matter. This is a film about what’s wrong – and such plainspeak is helpful to overcome our indoctrination into the corporate vision of life on Planet Earth. 

To offset these dark realities, we need a plethora of ideas leading us to sustainable living. Great Hollywood directors would find a willing audience craving hopeful solutions, along with the medicine of truth. 

[1] “The Corporation” Dir. Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan. Zeitgeist Video, 2004.