Danny O’Brien (Silver City)

Created by John Sayles

He’s in the jailhouse now…

Silver City was a 2004 indie flick by John Sayles rushed out in an attempt to derail the re-election of George W. Bush and the Republicans in that year’s American presidential election.

It didn’t work.

Sure, on the political level, it’s easy to see it as just another over-exuberant bit of Bushwhacking, so popular at the time, (and Chris Cooper’s portrayal of Dicky Pilager, a dramatically challenged Colorado gubernational wannabe, captures perfectly Ol’ Foot-in-Mouth’s legendary way with words), but give Sayles some credit. Despite its flaws (FOX News probably had a field day with it, assuming they even noticed it), this was at times also a surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful thriller that owes at least as much to Chinatown and the works of Raymond Chandler (much-cited by Sayles in the DVD commentary) as it does to Michael Moore.  Or Jon Stewart.

Yes, it deliberately pushes buttons, and the large ensemble cast is heavily stacked with committed showbiz lefties like Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah and Richard Dreyfus.  Even rabble-rousing Steve Earle pops up to sing “Amerika v. 6.0” over the the closing credits. Still, at its core, it’s as much about the corruption of the political process itself by special interest groups as it is about any particular political party or ideology.

I mean, back then, even conservatives were against abuse of power and corruption, right?

Spiritually if not cinemagraphically noir, it all kicks off with a great scene that recalls both John D. MacDonald’s The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper and Richard Hoyt’s Fish Story. Bumbling Dicky, the ne’er-do-well son of powerful Colorado Senator Jud Pilager, decked out in fishing gear, inadvertently reels in a human corpse out of Arapahoe Lake during the filming of a campaign ad that attempts to portray the candidate as a simple outdoorsy kinda guy who actually gives a damn about the environment.


Karl Rove-ish campaign manager Chuck Raven (Dreyfus) promptly takes charge, hoping to head off any suggestion that Dicky had anything at all to do with the dead man by hiring a local detective agency, suggesting they focus on the Pilager family’s enemies to see if this is some sort of underhanded political trickery or settling of accounts.

Yeah, eventually a private eye shows up. Not a big role, but a pivotal one.

At first it looks like a simple enough case for investigator DANNY O’BRIEN, a burned-out former reporter, who’s been assigned to the case.  O’Brien, played with rumpled charm by Danny Huston, makes for an appealing eye, bringing a slightly dazed Fred MacMurray deer-in-the-headlights affability to the proceedings.

But the nice guy doofus Danny gets more than he bargained for, to the chagrin of both his cynical, pragmatic boss (Mary Kay Place) and their client. Danny eventually finds himself over his head in a toxic waste pool of influence and corruption, possibly involving lobbyists, the media, the local police, the mining industry, human trafficking, real estate developers, a nymphomaniac Olympic archery contender (Hannah), a rabble-rousing Web site heading by a former journalist buddy (Tim Roth) and an old girlfriend (Maria Bello).

As I said, it’s all got a bit of a rushed feel to it, and too many of the characters, as appealing as they are–not to mention the romantic subplot–could have been better developed (or dropped completely).

As well, the fish-in-a-barrel political points are often delivered with too heavy a hand, to the detriment of the story itself. But the solid cast, and some great camera work by the legendary Haskell Wexler, kept things moving along, and O’Brien was fun to watch as the unimposing Everyman Eye, caught up in tangled political shenanigans way over his pay grade.

It’ll be interesting to see how this one ages.


  • “I’m a detective — you’re an investigator. And the first rule is don’t go finding more than you’re looking for.”
    — Danny’s boss puts him in his place
  • Reporter at press conference: “There have been reports, Mr. Pilager, that before you became involved in politics you had considerable experience with—”
    Dickie Pilager: “Look, if you’re up in a helicopter, airplane, something that flies, you don’t want your pilot intoxicated with drugs, do you? And it’s that way with our schoolchildren…Junior can’t read if he’s high on crack. Yeah, air is thin enough up here!”


  • “America is familiar with the way [George W. Bush] talks, and about half of us are comfortable with it. That’s why Silver City may not change any votes. There is nothing in the movie’s portrait of Pilager/Bush that has not already been absorbed and discounted by the electorate.”
    — Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times)
  • “… a Bush-bashing work that is more than Bush-bashing goes beyond election-year satire to reach broader themes of corporate power, campaign double talk and journalistic responsibility”
    — Caryn James (The New York Times)


  • SILVER CITY | Buy this DVD Watch it now!
    (2004, Silver City Films Inc./Anarchist’s Convention Films)
    Tagline: Vote early. Vote often.
    128 minutes
    Written and directed by John Sayles
    Cinematography by Haskell Wexler
    Produced by Maggie Renzi
    Associate producers: Suzanne Ceresko and Sam Tedesco
    Starring Chris Cooper as Dickie Pilager
    Richard Dreyfuss as Chuck Raven
    and Danny Huston as DANNY O’BRIEN
    Also starring Michael Murphy, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah, Thora Birch, James Gammon, Sal Lopez, Alma Delfina, Tim Roth, Mary Kay Place, Charles Mitchell, Maria Bello, Miguel Ferrer, Billy Zane, Luis Saguar, Ralph Waite
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

One thought on “Danny O’Brien (Silver City)

  1. Gotta see that — seen the cover when there was still a rental joint in town, but never popped. What a cast!

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