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Man of the (rich) people: Cooper in Silver City.

State of the Union

By Shawn Stone

Silver City
Directed by John Sayles

Day after day, the news
doesn’t seem to get any better. The socially conscious dramas of John Sayles, such as the ironically but aptly named City of Hope and Sunshine State, have usually offered a glimmer of progressive light in the corporate darkness. However, his new film about one state’s corrupt political system, Silver City, is such a deliciously cool look at the current political scene that it makes one wonder if even Sayles has given up hope.

Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) seems awfully familiar. The absence of humor, the bumbling manner and the complete inability to operate without a script is—intentionally, of course—suggestive of George W. Bush. As Silver City opens, former dumbass frat boy and business failure Pilager is being pushed by his U.S. senator-dad Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy) and a cadre of cozy corporate pals into the Colorado governor’s chair. The voters? Well, it’s the job of a political shark like Chuck Raven (a smartly focused Richard Dreyfuss), Pilager’s campaign manager, to fool them into voting against their best interests.

For example, there is the less-than-truthful “environmental” commercial Pilager is shooting in the film’s first scene. As this scion of a mining family fishes and extols the virtues of nature, he hooks a corpse. Raven gets Dickie the hell out of there, and, in a case of utilitarian paranoia, hires reporter-turned-detective Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston) to warn some of Pilager’s longtime enemies that they’re being watched, and to see if the body might have been planted on purpose to embarrass the candidate. The amusing thing is that of the three enemies on the short list, only one is a lefty.

Sayles uses this setup to take the audience on a journey through the sleaze, smoke and mirrors into the dark heart of political reality. It ain’t pretty. Millionaires own the politicians and the media; politicians fix the game and the media treat it “like a sporting event”; and everyone else, from developers to illegal immigrants, scrambles after the crumbs.

Our guide to this world is the detective. While Danny isn’t particularly interesting in himself, the folks he meets along the way are. Sayles’ great dialogue and lefty politics have always attracted terrific actors, and this really comes in handy here. Particularly memorable are Miguel Ferrer as an angry right-wing radio host; Ralph Waite as a former EPA inspector ground down by the Pilagers; Kris Kristofferson as a mogul; Billy Zane as a scummy lobbyist; and, especially, Darryl Hannah as Dickie Pilager’s very angry sister.

The main problem is that Danny Huston (son of John, brother of Anjelica) isn’t a very interesting actor. He has his father’s odd, sly way with line readings, but none of the menace. He’s a shlub, and we have to spend a lot of time with him. Worse, since Sayles is giving us such an unvarnished view of reality, we are presented with a love story to supply the requisite happiness. While it’s perfectly swell that reporter Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello) and Danny click together, it’s difficult to care.

That said, the film is enormously smart and insightful, and Sayles’ words are matched with a number of stellar images. The film’s last shot, a parody of that too-CGI-to-be-real image of thousands of boats converging on Troy, is heartbreaking and hilarious.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Directed by Richard Loncraine

Sports movies are either about male bonding or romance—and occasionally both, though this is often unintentional. Wimbledon is a straight romance with some interestingly filmed tennis in it.

Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) has reached the ripe old age of 32, is ranked 119th in the world, and is ready to retire from professional tennis after one more go at Wimbledon. He has a healthy sense of his limited career options, and a beguiling self-deprecating wit to go along with the rueful outlook. Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) is a fresh-faced 20-something up-and-comer with a killer instinct, a bright future and a fiendishly protective daddy-coach (Sam Neill). Naturally, after the proper cute meeting and fast courtship, love follows.

The romance is surprisingly effective, considering that the plot is older than Wimbledon itself: Peter starts winning because Lizzie loves him. She gives him the drive to win that this journeyman had never found in a long career. Chalk it up to a smart director and skilled cast pretending that their material is much better than it really is.

After having played a brainy second banana to Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander (and an amusingly despicable weakling in Dogville), Bettany comes into his own as a leading man here. He has intelligence and vulnerability, but what sets him apart from earlier Brit actors—swaggering Michael Caine, fussy Edward Fox—is that he’s so middle-class. In a cinematic tradition filled with aristocrats and louts, he’s something new.

The tennis action is slowed down and tricked up Matrix-style, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is curious, however, how little court time Dunst’s character is afforded—especially considering she has top billing. This is Peter’s story, however; she’s young and healthy, and we are to take her prowess for granted.

Director Richard Loncraine has a spotty but interesting resume that includes the Ian McKellen version of Richard III, which draped the psychopathic hunchback in Hitlerian garb, and Michael Palin’s early-’80s comic gem The Missionary. Here, Loncraine keeps matters pleasingly light; even the obligatory “evil daddy” scenes are kept to a minimum.

What the film can’t get around is the obligatory happy ending. Wimbledon does too good a job setting up the high-pressure, winner-take-all milieu of tennis at the Grand Slam level; when true love triumphs and goodness and virtue flood center court, it’s a little less than believable and a little more than disappointing. While Bettany and Dunst underplay just enough to take some of the sting out of this, Wimbledon would have succeeded more if it had either a smarter ending or a dumber beginning.

—Shawn Stone

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