Robbins, Tim: Director Profile

The Political Satirist–Tim Robbins

Tim Robbins' multiple talents as actor, writer and director have prompted Altman to compare him to the young Orson Welles. The comparison is not warranted at this phase of his career, but it signals an alert acting and directing talent. Robbins made an impressive debut with Bob Roberts, a political satire about a right-wing Pennsylvania businessman-cum-folk-singer-politician. The timing–just weeks before the 1992 Presidential Elections–could not have been better.

Studying the work of his mentor well, Robbins modelled Bob Roberts on Nashville, as a musical mosaic-satire. Like Nashville, in which the songs were improvised by the actors, the score for Bob Roberts was composed by Robbins and his brother David; their lyrics boast the film's shrewdest lines. Robbins also borrowed Altman's frequent cinematographer, Jean Lepine, to give the film a fitting look. Also like his mentor, he chose a first-rate ensemble in cameo roles: Susan Sarandon as a TV anchor woman; James Spader, Fred Ward, and Pamela Reed as news people; Alan Rickman as campaign manager. The greatest casting coup was asking novelist Gore Vidal to play Roberts' nemesis, the liberal incumbent Brickley Paiste.

Structured as a mockumentary, Robbins's film is This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner's mockumentary about a rock group) for the political arena, with flashes of Altman's TV series Tanner '88 thrown in. The idea of a singer turned politician can be traced back to 1950s Hollywood movies, like A Face in the Crowd and Wild in the Streets. Robbins may have also been inspired by D.A. Pennebaker's documentary on Bob Dylan, Don't Look Back.

Playing the title role with dead eyes and reptilian leer,Robbins' appearance as both sweet and Machiavellian recalls his delicious rendition of Griffin Mill, the murderous studio executive in The Player. Roberts rejects the ideals his hippie parents chose for him, instead opting to become a right-wing folk singer, businessman and politician. He runs a mean-spirited campaign; his associates are accused of channeling funds for the homeless into private enterprise. The news media, whose babbleheaded telecasters' happy-talk approach to news helps Roberts' rise to power, come under severe criticism in the movie.

A self-styled “rebel conservative” with oily, fabricated charisma, Roberts is a candidate who is not “one of those liberals who makes you feel guilty about what's wrong in society.” “Why can't you get ahead” he asks, “Why has your American dream been relegated to the ashcan of history” Nonetheless, when Roberts is slated to appear on a “Saturday Night Live” type program, “Cutting Edge–Live,” the production assistant is so appalled by the “yuppie fascist” that she literally pulls the plug on him.

Robbins shot Bob Roberts in November, during Pennsylvania's interim Senate race, where Democratic Senator Harris Wofford won an unexpected victory over Richard Thornburgh, former U.S. Attorney General. Those results buoyed Robbins' conviction that the satire is timely, reflecting growing discontent with right-wing politics. Hoping that people have had enough with conservative politics, he claimed: “Once they start seeing past the sound bite to what these people really feel, they'll start voting with their minds again.”

The son of folk singer Gil Robbins (of the Highwaymen), Robbins worked for years on his ideas before writing this inspired bit of political chicanery–“I wanted to think of it before somebody did it for real,” he said. He directed a short version of his movie as a sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” which received a positive response. But it took years to make the film. Eventually, the relevant satirical message and Robbins's clout as an actor persuaded Working Title to invest $4 million in the project.

Robbins is concerned about the “Hollywoodization of Washington,” an hypothesis central to his polemic. Indeed, there are striking parallels between Bob Roberts's candidacy and the real presidential race: Bill Clinton made the cover of “Rolling Stone” magazine, just like Roberts, and George Bush ballyhooed traditional values, also like Roberts. Said Robbins: “There are givens in any campaign, especially from the GOP. Their strategy has been based on diversion: smoke screens divert attention from the record.”

Though set in October 1990, during the Gulf War, there are no explicit references to the context. To find out what's on the agenda of the sneaky demagogue, one has to look at the titles of his albums: “The Freewheeling Bob Roberts,” “The Times Are Changing Back,” and “Bob on Bob,” all parodies of Bob Dylan's famous albums. The movie's treatment of the material is light and subtle enough to send conflicting signals to viewers of any persuasion: Democratic and Republican viewers could find supporting evidence for “what's wrong with America” and “who's guilty.”

As a mockumentary, the film is filled with piercing barbs at the current state of American politics. For two reels, Robbins achieves a balance of humor and poignancy, but in the final one, the plot spirals out of control with a Reichstag-like scam and heavyhanded speeches. Not cutting deep enough, Bob Roberts lacks the more cynical, biting approach of Michael Ritchie's The Candidate (1972), in which Robert Redford plays an idealist who is talked into running for Senate and in the process learns the immoral operations of the American political machine. Bob Roberts assumes that the public already knows what it takes to run elections and, winking at like-minded viewers, the movie makes them feel superior to those onscreen. A moderate commercial success, the picture was likely seen by those who have already agreed with its politics.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).