No One Is Immune From The Rot

John Sayles's subject in City of Hope is the political, social and moral rotting of urban America. It's his biggest, most ambitious movie, with something like 36 significant characters, whose fates are intricately woven together over the course of a few days in the fictional, multiethnic and very corrupt Hudson City, N.J. On a formal level alone, the film is a remarkable demonstration of Sayles's storytelling facility: though the tale is byzantine in its personal and political complexity, the relationships and issues are laid out with such assurance the viewer never feels lost. Sayles and cinematographer Robert Richardson, using long, mobile takes and wide-angle lenses, create a headlong, flowing rhythm which visually reinforces the theme of interconnectedness: the stories literally spill into each other on the screen. Every action, in this tainted pool, creates a ripple effect that bears harrowing repercussions. From the Hispanic drug dealer living in an abandoned apartment house to the gladhanding, corrupt mayor, no one is immune from the rot.

At the center of the story is Nick (Vincent Spano), the son of a construction-company owner (Tony Lo Bianco) who has sold his soul to the powers that be to provide a good life for his family. Nick, pressured by gambling and drug debts, gets implicated in a robbery. The mayor's men use this to blackmail his father into destroying a building that's blocking their plans for a lucrative new development--a complex that will further shaft the city's already disenfranchised minorities the black city councilman (Joe Morton), at odds with both the white power elite and the more militant black community leaders, gets drawn into the ease of Desmond (Jojo Smollett), a young black kid arrested for mugging a teacher (Bill Raymond) who was jogging in the park. The boy claims, to protect himself, that the man made homosexual advances, and this story, Tawana Brawley style, exacerbates the city's already loaded racial tensions.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and only a few of the characters Sayles packs into his painful, compelling screenplay. Because he has to work in quick, broad brushstrokes, Sayles sometimes relies on TV-style melodrama and slickness: at its weakest the movie is closer to soap opera than tragedy. The more hopeful moments, oddly, are often the most hackneyed. But what's remarkable is how much of "City of Hope's" epic ambition pays off, with a power that never becomes grandiloquent. The solid ensemble includes Barbara Williams as a divorcee Nick falls for; Sayles himself as a sleazy autoshop operator; Gloria Foster as Desmond's righteous mother; Louis Zorich as the mayor, and David Strathairn as a homeless man whose parrotlike ravings function as the film's demented Greek chorus. Sayles has always been a keen observer, never a navel-gazer. At a time when the politicians who run this country would rather turn their eyes elsewhere, his urgent, upsetting look at the sickness of our cities is a bracing antidote to Bush-league evasions.