John Sayles’ Scathing Silver City Muckrakes on Bush Turf

John Sayles’ Silver City fires yet another cinematic salvo across the bow of the Bush-Cheney-Rove-Ashcroft ship of state, which seems to be steaming ahead toward yet another stolen election. In paying his populist-progressive dues, Mr. Sayles has inscribed his own thematic signature on Silver City , his 15th feature film in a muckraking quarter of a century that began with the low-budget Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), a film that captured the passion and pathos of the youthful anti–Vietnam War movement more persuasively than any other film of its time.

The frequently heard rap on Mr. Sayles then and ever since was that his heart was in the right place, but his mise en scène was just wrong. And though the intelligently articulate dialogue he wrote for his characters should’ve been more appreciated, it was instead damned with faint praise as proof that Mr. Sayles was too glib to bother being “cinematic”-which nowadays means visual illiteracy embellished with expensive special effects.

Nonetheless, Silver City does seem more like the work of a nuanced novelist than of a dynamic visual and dramatic talent. Instead, there is a familiar sobriety to the film that attests to Mr. Sayles’ deep respect for all his characters; the good, the shady and the poor wretches caught in between. Throughout his career, Mr. Sayles has displayed a special concern for losers in a market that pays top dollar for fantasies about winners.

Silver City ‘s Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) is a case in point. Caught in a setup, poor Danny is fired not once but twice; first in his job as a crusading reporter against official corruption, and then as an establishment investigator hired by the Karl Rove–like Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss). Mr. Raven is the campaign manager for Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), a George W. Bush–like dim bulb and son of Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy). The Pilager dynasty, we learn, has pillaged the Colorado environment for generations. So when a lakeside campaign commercial for Dickie Pilager backfires-he hooks a human corpse during a fly-fishing trip-Chuck Raven suspects dirty tricks by the opposition, and hires Danny O’Brien to check up on some anti-Pilager hotheads and warn them that they’re being watched. But during the course of his assignment, Danny stumbles across a bothersome murder mystery implicating the powers-that-be in a tangled web of corporate malfeasance and police corruption.

Of course, when using allegorical names like “Pilager” and “Raven” (and “Dickie”), one is already on the verge of cartoonish caricature of one’s political adversaries. But Mr. Sayles possesses too subtle a sensibility to make the enemy completely ridiculous. Hence, Dickie may be a little slow on the uptake and a little maladroit in his unrehearsed comments to the press and the public, but he is never a complete nitwit, any more than is our own George W. Bush. In fact, Silver City ends with Raven and his candidate about to emerge triumphant with the help of crooked law enforcement, ruthless corporate behavior and a public gullible enough to swallow Dickie Pilager’s poison-pill cure for all our social ills with the magic word, “privatization”-which here is concerned with “liberating” the natural wilderness from the hobbling regulations of pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington.

I must express some strong reservations about Mr. Sayles’ treatment of the neo-noir elements in his film. These involve the somewhat confusing discoveries of human-rights violations against illegal Mexican immigrants, and the violation of obscure environmental and worker-safety standards in mining the silver that gives the film its title. Mr. Sayles indulges in too many cryptic conversations of a paranoid nature-people talking about selling out or not selling out to some unseen and seemingly invincible force. The sci-fi elements are not surprising, considering that Mr. Sayles has dabbled in the subject both as a screenwriter and writer-director. It’s not a surprise either that Mr. Sayles doesn’t take the other side-political activists-at face value; indeed, he leaves open the possibility that the slick, smooth evildoers are driving men and women of conscience stark raving mad.

In many ways, Silver City is Mr. Sayles’ most pessimistic film since Limbo (1999), which had a dangerously unresolved and utterly depressing ending. This time around, I’m already depressed by the direction political campaigning has taken, using the Big Lie as a campaign tactic for a susceptible public and a compliant press that has ignored its mission of truth-seeking investigative journalism. (Thank God for Michael Moore, Jon Stewart and several comic strips, not including the pernicious and fallacious Fillmore .) In this context, Mr. Sayles seems to have intended Silver City as a wake-up call to all us potentially complacent anti-Bushites. He needn’t have gone to all the trouble of alerting us, since everything I read and hear from our side is full of doom and gloom. As it happens, the grotesque spectacle provided by both Chris Cooper’s Dickie Pilager and George W. Bush’s George W. Bush is painful to watch in light of its apparent success at mass persuasion.

In the realm of nuance, Mr. Sayles is capable of making distinctions between various shadings of right-wing ideology. Thus, one of Dickie’s and Chuck’s most bothersome antagonists is an even nuttier, ultra-conservative radio motormouth, Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), who finds Dickie too “liberal” for his taste. Another thorn in Chuck’s side is Dickie’s flaky sister, Maddy Pilager (Daryl Hannah), who is on the outs with her whole family and everything it stands for, though her behavior is much too erratic and drug-induced to do anything damaging. Except, that is, to our foolish protagonist, Danny, who allows himself to be seduced by the irresponsible Maddy, and who then gets fired by Chuck after Maddy boasts of her conquest to him. I frankly didn’t know what to make of this turn of events: Is Mr. Sayles suggesting that the opposition to the predators is so fragmented and eccentric that there is no hope of stopping them? If so, why bother raising a stink on-screen over the inevitable? Yet that is precisely what Mr. Sayles does with his final, apocalyptic image of dead fish floating on a corporation-polluted lake. Dickie is seemingly on his way to the governor’s mansion, and all is well with the predatory Pilagers. I can only hope that Mr. Sayles is being unduly pessimistic, but hope is fading with every turn of the news cycle. There is nothing to do but pray for some last-minute redemption of our land from the better-organized kleptocrats in our midst, be they the stooges at Harken Energy or Halliburton or the hordes of overcompensated C.E.O.’s across the length and breadth of our ravaged landscape.

Czech Mate

Ondrej Trojan’s Zelary , from a screenplay by Petr Jarchovsky (written in Czech with English subtitles), based on the autobiographical novella Josova Hanule by Kveta Legátová, was one of the five Academy Award nominees this year for Best Foreign-Language Film. The film goes back more than 60 years to the wartime occupation of Czechoslovakia, first by the Germans and later by the victorious Soviet Army. In the first scenes, Eliska (Anna Geislerová) is introduced abruptly, without any expository dialogue, engaged in an urbane sex scene with her lover. We are later told that her lover is a surgeon named Richard, with whom Eliska works as a nurse, her own medical education having been interrupted by the Nazi occupation. Richard, Eliska and their friend, Dr. Chiasek, all belong to the same resistance group. One night, Richard and Eliska are interrupted in their lovemaking by an emergency call from the hospital: A farmer named Joza (György Cserhalmi) has been badly injured and is near death. When Richard determines that Joza requires an immediate blood transfusion to survive, Eliska is the only person on hand with a matching blood type.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Chiasek rushes to Eliska with terrible news. The Gestapo has arrested two members of their resistance group. Richard has fled the country and Eliska must take a new identity as Hana and meld into rural existence with Joza the farmer as her husband in Zelary. The rest of the film is devoted to her eventual adaptation to a new life that initially repels her with its primitive ways and lack of cultural amenities. At first she is cold toward Joza, but when confronted with the alternative-the Gestapo and its wide network of informers-she buckles down to her new life. For his part, Joza is so grateful to Eliska for saving his life that he has no problem being patient with her.

Life in Zelary turns out to be less than idyllic. The natives are violently hot-blooded even when they’re not being harassed by the Germans and, later, the Russians; ultimately, the consequences are tragic for both Eliska/Hana and the courageous Joza. Among the melodramatic incidents are rapes, murders and miscarriages-and that’s not counting the depredations of the Nazis ahead of the oncoming drunken hordes of Russians, who see Germans everywhere, even killing the harmless villagers.

Zelary ends up as a bittersweet epic of survival in a desperate period in Czech history. The slow-building love story between the city mouse Eliska and the country mouse Joza provides the mythological heart of the narrative. It’s made more convincing by the fact that the actress playing Eliska was Czech and the actor playing Joza Hungarian, and neither spoke the other’s language except when reading lines in the script. In fact, the Czech actress insisted that the Hungarian actor not converse with her in any language except when they were in character for a scene.

This radical search for realism seems to confirm the director’s own methods, as reflected in his Director’s Statement: “Our film is cruel, beautiful, moving, raw, but above all else, true and honest. I tried to shoot it simply, unpretentious[ly], without using crutches but also providing the actors with space so individual scenes could be filmed in real time. The actors could then play themselves and be emotionally natural.”

I would say that Mr. Trojan has succeeded in his objective by surmounting the horrors of a real-life time and place with a romantic dramatization of great love flowering on dangerous soil.

Non-Linear Love

Christoffer Boe’s Reconstruction , from a screenplay by Mr. Boe and Mogens Rukov, reflects the influence of such recent experiments with so-called “fractured narrative” as Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). The situation is this: Two people meet for the first time in Copenhagen. Having spent one perfect night together, they decide to cut loose from the complacency of their existing lives and risk everything to be together. At least, that’s the beginning as described in the production notes. But it’s not exactly the way the story is told on-screen. We’re first introduced to the story by a deus ex machina narrator who explains that the film is engaged in the processes of construction and reconstruction in piecing together its narrative. The story, as described in the synopsis, actually begins with an initially unidentified man picking up an initially unidentified woman in a bar, as if they’d never seen each other before. One thing leads to another, and they end up together in her bedroom.

Only gradually do we realize that the man is a Danish photographer named Alex David (Nikolaj Lie Kass) and the woman is named Aimee Holm (Maria Bonnevie). While waiting for his girlfriend Simone (also played by Maria Bonneville), Alex catches his first glimpse of Aimee and they exchange meaningful eye contact with each other. When Simone joins him and gets on a train with him, he keeps looking back at Aimee, and when she gets off at the next stop, Alex makes his excuses to Simone and runs after Aimee. They end up in the same bar where we originally assumed the first pick-up occurred.

To shuffle the narrative cards a little further, Aimee is roaming the streets of Copenhagen because she feels neglected by her writer-husband August Holm, who is too busy finishing a love story very similar to the one we’re watching on the screen. He and his wife have come to Copenhagen from Sweden for his book tour. August is clearly obsessed with his writing, but he is also emotionally needy with respect to his wife, and he dreads the prospect of ever losing her to another man.

Meanwhile, Alex blithely returns to his apartment after his night with Aimee and discovers that his room has been boarded up, the door with a new lock in place. When he confronts his landlady downstairs, she denies that she ever rented the room to him. Suddenly, his whole prior existence begins to unravel as, in turn, Simone, his best friend and even his own father deny ever having known him.

From then on, his only recourse is to be reunited with Aimee, and even here he miscalculates-with disastrous consequences. Ultimately, the narrative becomes too hypothetical for its good, but it succeeds in holding one’s attention with its romantic intensity and sheer old-fashioned glamour. The fact that the same actress plays two rivals in the game of love by using different hairdos and coloring automatically softens the sting of Alex’s multiple betrayals and hesitations: It’s as if he’s caught in a maze not of his own construction. The three actors for four parts perform with uncommon insight and conviction to make even the film’s most labored ambiguities seem intermittently plausible.