The most deadpan, dead-on, sharply focused political satire in recent memory, "Silver City" methodically skewers George W. Bush (by proxy), the spineless corporate press (and their mistrustful underground adversaries), the billion-dollar candidate-making machinery of modern politics, and the general gullibility of the voting public -- all within the inimitable interlocking-ensemble narrative style of writer-director John Sayles.
Set in Colorado during the current election cycle, the plot circles a dozen-odd characters around a political scandal in the making, set in motion by the discovery of a corpse during the filming of a gubernatorial campaign ad. The candidate is Dickie Pilager, an inarticulately folksy, uncorrupt but "user-friendly" son of a powerful ex-senator -- played to tongue-tied, Bush-mimicking exactitude by the subtly superlative Chris Cooper ("Adaptation," "The Bourne Identity," "American Beauty").
Pilager's merciless attack-dog campaign manager (Richard Dreyfuss, channeling Bush puppet-master Karl Rove), convinced his candidate is being set up for something sinister, hires a private investigator to intimidate a handful of potential saboteurs, including a spurned arch-conservative radio-show host (Miguel Ferrer) and Pilager's hard-living, black-sheep sister, played with delicious volatility by Daryl Hannah. But what he doesn't know is that his stooge (the complex, understated Danny Huston from "21 Grams" and "ivans xtc.") is a disgraced, disenchanted and depressed ex-loose-cannon newspaper reporter.
The detective is supposed to "Let them know they're being watched. And don't be subtle." But his compulsive old instincts get the better of him and the film takes a noir twist as he unearths dangerous leads about the dead body that could have ramifications for the candidate's daddy and the cowboy-billionaire land developer (Kris Kristofferson) who's bankrolling Pilager's campaign.
Huston's performance provides the most compellingly human element of the story as his numb, dejected journalist's soul is slowly reinvigorated. As with all John Sayles pictures, "Silver City" also captures the unique flavor of its locale with native humor (wondering if the dead man is from Boulder, cop asks coroner "You check his stomach for granola?") and intertwined subplots about cattle ranching, mining waste and upscale suburban expansion. But the heart of the film is its perceptive, unblinking social commentary on the increasingly corrupt and incestuous state of backroom politics and timid journalism -- and the hollow-vessel front men this relationship is helping to ordain.
"Silver City" has many minor flaws, including some arduous stage-setting exposition (uncharacteristic for Sayles) and implausibly speedy confidences formed between virtual strangers with no reason to trust each other. But Sayles means "Silver City" as a particularly relevant, symbolic political scrutiny in the here and now -- not necessarily as a movie to be remembered among his classics -- and on that count it's a searing and ironically patriotic success.