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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

‘Silver City’ and ‘Hero’ offer exciting drama


Silver City is the most exciting and insightful political movie of this political year. It probably won’t change any more votes than “Fahrenheit 911” but casts a broader, deeper eye on the forces that all but control our country. Directed, written and edited by John Sayles (“Matewan,” “Lone Star,” “The Secret of Roan Inish”), the film was shot in Colorado, the scenic glories of which are brilliantly captured by cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The story centers on the gubernatorial campaign of Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), whose uncertain rhetoric and endorsement of family values deliberately invoke Bush’s first political efforts in Texas.

Dickie’s fishing photo-op, aimed at the environmental vote, is ruined when the candidate’s line catches on a battered corpse, and Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a once-idealistic reporter turned private investigator, is hired to determine who may be trying to sabotage the candidate. Danny gradually discovers that it is not Pilager’s powerless enemies but his backers who are responsible. The search leads to mercenary political lobbyists, vulnerable migrant workers and a mining, publishing and utilities mogul, Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson), whose Benteen Corporation has put up half the money for Pilager’s campaign. The end comes after an authentic Day of the Dead parade through the town by Mexican immigrants and a bittersweet compromise with the realistic sheriff who recognizes the limits of human justice.

Sayles tells his fast-moving story in several dozen quick fragments, each affording wry glimpses of the backstories of its many characters. Danny observes the planning of Silver City, the new retirement residence that rests on land filled with water polluted by Benteen’s earlier mines. The project will get its water from distant sources; apparently, its aging residents will never fish or swim. In the key scene Benteen rides on horseback with Pilager through a beautiful frontier setting. “This land is a treasure chest waiting to be opened for the people,” Benteen tells the naive candidate, “if only we pursue the magic word: privatization!”

Sayles refuses to tack on a happy ending, but there is hope that Danny will get together again with Nora, his former love (Maria Bello), a journalist who is covering the election so honestly her paper is bought up.

Cooper, who normally projects an image of strength and intelligence, makes the would-be governor seem weak and dull-witted; Richard Dreyfuss is properly ferocious as his campaign manager; Daryl Hannah is the candidate’s resistant but broken sister; and Kristofferson is suavely frightening as the man who hopes to control the whole state. The entire cast works seamlessly to make “Silver City” a passionate and persuasive outcry against the loss of a healthy environment and of democracy itself.

Hero is the most popular movie ever shown in China, in part because its imaginative martial arts sequences support a mythic story that explains the unification of that vast country more than 2,000 years ago. It probably won’t be as successful in the United States as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” but is certainly one of the most beautiful films you’ll ever see. It combines a deep sense of ritual, “Rashomon”-like flashbacks and a stunning use of varying dominant colors, as when yellow autumn leaves suddenly turn red after a character dies. Director Zhang Yimou chose Australian Christopher Doyle as cinematographer because he planned to divide “Hero” into five sections, each dominated by a single color, and was confident of Doyle’s ability to produce extraordinary hues.

Nameless (Jet Li) comes to the kingdom of Qin, whose king (Chen Daoming) hopes to unite the warring Chinese states. Nameless says he has vanquished the king’s three chief enemies, Sky (Donnie Yen) and the estranged lovers Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). But the king, sitting in the columned throne room where hundreds of candles blaze before him, doesn’t accept the story, and two alternate versions of the events are required to reach the truth.

The fighting is more beautiful than bloody. In one encounter the two participants battle above a calm lake that mirrors their images. The passion between Broken Sword and Flying Snow is complicated by the presence of a lovely young servant named Moon (Zhang Ziyi) and seems evident even when they cross swords with each other. The movie’s center, however, is the quiet series of exchanges between Nameless and the King of Qin. The movie is full of pageantry and spectacular individual moments, but everything blends so perfectly that we breathe it all in as if it’s our everyday atmosphere.

Zhang Yimou’s earlier work (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “The Story of Qiu Ju”) was well-received but hardly prepared us for a film able to combine epic sweep, ballet as an aerial duel, and nuggets of Chinese wisdom. “Hero” suggests a complex paradox: Its glorification of empire insured support from the current Chinese leaders, yet it also includes an invocation of peace as superior to all forms of war making. Unfortunately, my Chinese-doctor son reminded me that “Hero’s” ultimate message seems to be that we must learn to kill in order to achieve peace.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail is

Quick Takes

The Corporation, directed by Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar, is a wonderful Canadian documentary that ought to be shown in schools across the country. We all know corporations are more powerful than governments but too few of us understand how they operate. Though “The Corporation” is often amusing, it’s not a movie you go to for entertainment; you feel you ought to see it a second time and take notes. The movie offers a step-by-step analysis of how corporations work. While avoiding strident denunciation, it nevertheless concludes that by human standards, corporations are psychopathic.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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