Silver City

A contemporary curiosity

What film depicts corrupt politicians and businessmen controlling a vast local resource but enduring a sometimes-hapless yet attractive detective investigating a murder involving those community leaders? If you said "Chinatown," you'd be correct; if you said "Silver City," you'd also be correct. There are other similarities such as both have stars with last names Huston, and justice is long coming. Beyond that, there is no qualitative similarity: Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" is a classic; John Sayles' "Silver City" is a contemporary curiosity.

"Contemporary" because the liberal Sayles writes and directs about a political campaign for the governorship of Colorado that barely disguises its protagonists as George Bush (Chris Cooper) and Karl Rove (Richard Dreyfuss) knockoffs. Cooper's candidate has halting, incomplete, and scripted sentences, undoubtedly the speech patterns of Bush. The manipulative and effective machinations of Dreyfuss's operative are patently those of the infamous Bush campaign mastermind.

The story and dialogue are undistinguished, as if they count on the audience to be mesmerized by the broad parallels to the 2004 campaign. (See "Primary Colors" for wit and grit about the Clinton campaign, starring John Travolta.) Although Danny Huston (son of John and brother of Angelica) is a lesser Jack Nicholson, his easy-going persona works well for a detective who constantly gets himself into trouble rather than his clients out of it.

The comparison to Michael Moore's documentary "Fahrenheit 911" is inevitable. The heavy-handedness of "Silver" makes Moore's work look almost subtle, yet Sayles must be praised for his dissenting voice in parlous times for free speech. Sayles is more successful in weaving the intricate patterns of corruption in "City of Hope"; here he seems more like Moore in an overt attempt to topple a sitting president. Sayles's "Lone Star" is more believable, and that's about incest.

John, Viscount Morley in "Rousseau" wrote, "Those who would treat politics and morality apart will never understand the one or the other."

These filmmakers understand both in varying degrees of success.