The under-the-table political ethic of LBJ, Richard Nixon, and Watergate, the ascent of the Gipper in 1980 preaching the gospel of "morning in America," the still unresolved legacy of Iran-contra, Bush and "read my lips," right up to the current presidential campaign, with the models of Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot representing the pervasive vacuousness in modern political discourse, are grist for the mill in Tim Robbins's splendid debut film, Bob Roberts -- a documentary spoof about a young, right-wing folk singer running for congress in Pennsylvania. Moreover, it is a trenchant satire of America's electorate -- voters enthusiastically line up with signs reading "Pride" and "Vote Bob" to cheer stump speeches mixing blankness with hatemongery -- and thus an attempt to reclaim their soul. There is a bitingly accurate depiction of the shadowy figures that handle the messenger (and, by suggestion, the message) in our races. And best of all, Bob Roberts joyfully addresses the madness of contemporary media, especially the concept of viewer friendliness that permeates our living rooms like wartime propaganda. Deliberately, and often brilliantly, it's a one-joke movie -- and the joke is on us.
It's also an act of supreme perversity. Here is a candidate who composes and sings bland songs on-stage touting the most reactionary agenda imaginable -- kill drug addicts, make millions is the short of it -- and wins. With LP titles like The Freewheelin' Bob Roberts and Times Are Changin' Back, Bob Roberts's ditties sound as though Pat Buchanan's GOP convention speech in August had been set to music. About the drug lords: "Hang 'em high for a clean-livin' land." On the economy: "We're marching for self-interest." (There's also a brilliant take on MTV, with a Bob Roberts music video entitled Wall Street Rap.) That Bob Roberts is, after all, a folk singer heaps irony on top of insult. As played by Robbins, who wrote the screenplay based on his Saturday Night Live short in the Eighties and also wrote the songs (with his brother, David Robbins), he is the quintessential Nineties candidate -- slicker than Willie, more righteous than Dan, as friendly and good-looking as Al, and meaner than George. He's the unknown citizen -- except with $40 million in the bank, a hit record, and megalomaniacal aspirations.
Roberts's senatorial opponent is a bow-tied, stiff-collared incumbent, Brickley Paiste, played by Gore Vidal in yet another improbable coup. That the older candidate is a waning liberal is one of the film's sublimely sure inversions. Two older political dramas accent this difference: In Advise and Consent, filmed in the Sixties just as the Kennedy Administration signaled the end of the previous sleepy decade of Eisenhower's watch, Charles Laughton's senator was a conservative Southern dinosaur donning a white suit; when Robert Redford played The Candidate in 1972, again the thrust was on a California youngblood taking on the conservative establishment through liberalism.
Vidal himself has run twice for congress -- once for the House of Representatives, and most recently for the Senate in 1984, when he failed to win the nomination over Jerry Brown, who went on to lose. The novelist/essayist's performance in Bob Roberts is one of the highlights of the film because, just as Michael Deaver said about Reagan, Tim Robbins lets Gore be Gore. Especially in the improvised interviews with Senator Paiste, which are spliced into the film and return and return (says Vidal, in the press notes) "like a Greek chorus." To listen to Vidal muse on the National Security apparatus, the conservative agenda, the stealth tactics of the far right, and the geopolitical climate -- things he's been saying on TV and writing for years with a combination of bemusement, intellect, and controlled passion -- is to bemoan his place on the sidelines of American politics. Gore Vidal is Tim Robbins's smartest ploy, because the intelligence of every Paiste/Vidal remark only makes the victory of Bob Roberts more certain.
Ray Wise (known to many as Leland Palmer in the Twin Peaks saga) and Alan Rickman are beautifully cast as political handlers. Rickman, in particular, who can be over the top (even to good effect, as with his Sheriff of Nottingham last year), gives the finest performance because he seems to recall every political underling of the past twenty years. H.R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff during Nixon's turbulent tenure, said once: "Every president needs a son-of-a-bitch, and I'm Nixon's." Rickman's Everyman political scoundrel has been inspired by the likes of Haldeman, Hamilton Jordan (Carter's political whiz), Deaver and Paul Laxalt (Reagan's), and James Baker III (Bush's) -- it's scarcely coincidence that Rickman's character is named LucasHart III.
TV personalities also get a black eye in Bob Roberts. Two holdovers from Tanner '88, the Robert Altman-Garry Trudeau HBO campaign chronicle, Peter Gallagher and Pamela Reed, join James Spader, Fred Ward, Helen Hunt, and (hilariously) Susan Sarandon, who plays anchorwoman Tawna Titan, in roasting the current crop of idiot-box front men and women. We don't have to look very far to see how on-the-money Robbins is on this -- Miami's four TV news outlets have more than their share of dunderheads.
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The only thing that's seriously wrong with Robbins's film is that, after a while, the message is a mallot pounding on our sensibilities. Unlike Tanner '88, Robbins insists on further politicizing his view rather than being content with mere observation -- perhaps the difference between a young filmmaker and an older one. Otherwise it is a prodigious feat (the movie was budgeted at $4 million, a lesson to Hollywood about that old argument, quality versus quantity), ably acted and shot, and above all, full of intelligence, energy, and wit. If America is a terrible place to live because duplicitous charlatans like Bob Roberts exceed at the polls, our culture is still a wonder to behold when a movie such as this one wins big at the box office. Let's hope it does.
Written and directed by Tim Robbins; with Tim Robbins, Gore Vidal, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, Peter Gallagher, Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Helen Hunt, and John Cusack.