"Silver City"'s Dim Son

Chris Cooper Plays John Sayles's Dubya-Like Politician And He's Ready For Right-Wing Flak

TORONTO--You know that generic disclaimer at the end of movies where it says that any similarity between persons living or dead is purely coincidental? Well, any similarity between Silver City's Dickie Pilager and U.S. President George W. Bush is no coincidence.

John Sayles's latest movie (opening October 8 in Vancouver) is no less political than Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, and it's almost as subtle. The film is punctuated by campaign ads for fictitious right-wing candidate Pilager, and one of its official Web sites, www.dickiepilager2004.com/, sets out a campaign platform full of Bushy bons mots like: "Look at the root word of terrorist--terror. How can anyone wonder whether these people are right or wrong? They've got terror right there in their name. Do they have to spell it out?"

Sayles, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, put up more than $5 million from his own pocket to get it done before the U.S. election. He's been quoted as saying that there's nothing more important than defeating Bush.

Although the movie is officially a whodunit homage to Chinatown--featuring Danny Huston as a disgraced reporter--turned-investigator stuck in the centre of a conspiracy and a busted romance or two--the heart and soul of the noirish film (and its obvious raison d'íªtre) is Chris Cooper's portrayal of an ambitious but intellectually vacant candidate for governor of Colorado. Pilager (in some respects, Sayles is even less subtle than Moore) is a dim son who inherited a political dynasty from his father (Michael Murphy). He's also a born-again Christian funded by big business who lacks both intellectual curiosity and intellect and sees no conflict in serving the interests of his wealthy supporters.

The cast, which features a lot of big names in smallish parts, also includes Richard Dreyfuss as the Pilager clan's answer to Karl Rove, Daryl Hannah as Dick's scandalous sister, Maria Bello as a journalist/love interest, Billy Zane as a sleazy lobbyist, and Tim Roth and Thora Birch as crusading Web journalists.

Lounging on a couch in a room at the Hotel Intercontinental the day after the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Cooper agrees that making this movie was a political act. "I think it brings back to mind issues that should be on the table and are politically important but are not being talked about. The suggestions that John has made in this piece of entertainment are also important issues but they're not on the table, and I think people are going to great extremes to keep them off the table."

The issues on the table in the film include corporate control of the political agenda, destruction of the environment, and the way political enemies are discredited. "It's the creeping back of the McCarthy era, and it's shocking," Cooper says. "A little-known thing about Americans in their very short history: they continue to have very short memories, and when you have a population now where 85 percent are not familiar with what happened in the McCarthy era, then it's bound to happen again."

Asked if he studied Bush to prepare for the film, Cooper replies flatly: "Didn't have to, didn't have to," leaving off the pronoun just like a certain U.S. president might.

"I watch way too much news. And I watch to see how one particular story is being presented on all the different channels--and also go to BBC and get their take--so these politicians and George Bush are in my face every day. So it was like an unknown research that I was already performing."

Cooper, winner of an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in Adaptation, was originally approached to take the role of Wes Benteen, a multibillionaire who funds and defines the Pilager campaign. Although Cooper agreed to do it, he wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the part. "I kind of felt that I'd already done the Wes Benteen character in other films."

He wasn't going to pass on the chance to work with Sayles again, though. "If at all possible, I'll be there if John has something, anything. I'll be there and try and help out." Cooper's screen career started when he was cast by Sayles in Matewan in 1987, and they've since worked together on City of Hope and Lone Star.

When Sayles ran into casting trouble, Cooper was invited to try on the part of Pilager and Benteen was taken over by another Sayles favourite, Kris Kristofferson. Cooper was delighted. "Dicky Pilager was a much more challenging character and in some respects a little more interesting for me to try and play right now."

In terms of his personal politics, Cooper is a registered Democrat but he's more involved in the local scene at home in Massachusetts than he is on the federal front. "I am very politically active locally, in my community. I did go to the final evening of the DNC [Democratic National Convention]....But my politics for the most part are local. I support my local representative."

Cooper became active on the political scene for very personal reasons. "When you have a child who is severely disabled and education is being denied him in your community's public school, you become political real quickly. And in the case of my family, I have a son with severe cerebral palsy in a wheelchair.

"His disabilities are physical; he's a very bright boy and he has spent his life trying to prove his intellect to those who don't know him. The local public school did not want to deal with him, so we had a year-and-a-half fight to get him his basic rights. And now he's a sophomore in high school; for three semesters now he's been an honours student. He communicates on computer. So that tends to make you very political."

Cooper realizes his portrayal of a Bushlike candidate puts him front and centre if and when right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh start tarnishing Silver City. "I have no doubt it'll be coming our way. And I'll have to deal with it when it does come. I don't know how I will. I don't know if I can hold my own against people like that in an argument--people like whatsisname, Bill O'Reilly, have their game down quite well and they'll just shout you down and they more or less won't give you a chance to speak, so I don't know how I'll handle myself when it comes."

The actor doesn't seem too worried about being fried like a Dixie Chick, though. "I know we're going to get some flak from the other side, and I'm sure they'll say this is the wrong time to show a film like this during an election year and it's dirty pool and all that, but I think there's no better time to bring up a subject: a film like this. On the other hand, it's kind of basically a missing-persons possible-murder whodunit, you know, built around a political dynasty. And, yes, there are similarities, there's no denying it. But, frankly, I think it was presented not so much with a bias. I think it was presented pretty objectively."

The pundits at Fox News are likely to be just as objective about a film whose fictional candidate's "family values" are described in one scene as "no handouts for homos".