Criterion Prediction #52: City of Hope, by Alexander Miller
Title: City of Hope
Director: John Sayles
Cast: Vincent Spano, Stephen Mendillo, Tony Lo Bianco, Chris Cooper, Jace Alexander, Todd Graff, David Strathairn, John Sayles, Angela Bassett, Joe Morton, Frankie Faison, Bill Raymond, Louis Zorich
Synopsis: Nicky Rinaldi (Spano) is a disillusioned young man who walks out on his cushy job provided by his wealthy, well-connected father Joe. Feeling like he’s living in the shadow of his older brother (who died in Vietnam) and his contractor father, Nicky decides to be accomplice to a hairbrained robbery and finds himself on the run from the police. Although his father has connections with the local politicians, they won’t cut his ne’er-do-well son a break unless he himself engages in some shady dealings involving a new commercial development. Meanwhile, an idealistic city council member Wynn (Morton) is torn between the predominantly white establishment and his ties with the black community. When a racially sensitive case reaches the media, Wynn is faced with an ethical quandary regarding his beliefs and how to play the delicate game of modern politics.
Critique: John Sayles is a lot of things – a proficient editor, talented actor, and excellent director. City of Hope has an elaborate narrative, but his assured direction guides us through the multiple characters; we get a feel for their past, what they strive for and a little bit of everything in between. Whether it’s a shorthand comment from a friend or a wisecrack made by a co-worker, we feel a tangible connection to this flawed, but thoroughly humanized realization of a modern community.
As a writer, Sayles truly excels. He maximizes the gravity of his political leanings by localizing his content. The crux of City of Hope hinges on unions, contractors, developers, city council members, and police. The
civil mechanics and working class are the springboard for his unimposing political convictions.
There’s a texture and feel to this movie that is on par with the matter-of-fact realization. City of Hope isn’t a sounding board for lofty idealism or grandiose trumpeting. It’s the kind of street-level realism you feel like you can reach out and touch. The “city” in City of Hope can be any city, and the plot is the kind of headline you would read in your local paper. But the films gives us more by filling in the lines with rich characterizations.
Intersecting stories and “multi-character mosaics” usually rely on chance encounters, or the writing is dependent on coincidences that are beyond belief. Thankfully, Sayles isn’t the type to backslide into any cliche or narrative contrivance, his cinema is all about developing a story. City of Hope is a busy film – the two dozen main characters and the connective tissue tying them together come from pragmatic and insightful writing.
As an actor, and a notably great director of actors, Sayles not only writes himself an “amusing” part as a trashy mechanic, but combines the talent of an ensemble cast. Morton, Spano, and Strathairn – mainstays in the director’s filmography – are doing terrific work. Angela Bassett, who would go on to work with Sayles in Passion Fish and Sunshine State, is great as always.
Craftsmanship and artistry feel like separate schools of thought. However, City of Hope is evidence that the two aren’t mutually exclusive – John Sayles has made craftsmanship his art form and that is evident throughout his filmography.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The seventh film to appear in this column was Sayles’ 1987 Matewan. Since then, some predictions have come to fruition, others have not. While the work of John Sayles is yet to be graced with the Criterion treatment, that won’t diminish my desire to wish for more or any of the director’s work to get a spine number.
For some bewildering reason, City of Hope is only available on VHS and streaming VOD. Even for ardent fans of the director’s work, this movie is hard to come by. If Criterion could get the rights to City of Hope (which should be easy), it would be a welcome “discovery” for some, and a celebration for others. City of Hope would be a great companion to the early 90’s era titles from the likes of Todd Haynes, David Mamet, Richard Linklater, and Whit Stillman.
For a director as strong as Sayles, and a movie as solid as City of Hope, it’s strange that it’s virtually absent from DVD or Blu-ray. Hopefully, an upcoming film from John Sayles is simply one of Criterion’s best-kept secrets.