Bob Roberts (1992): Tim Robbins Winning Political Satire

Is 1992 the year of Tim Robbin? It seems so. Following his superb performance in Robert Altman’s The Player, which won him an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival and is likely to gain him an Oscar nomination, Robbins makes an impressive debut as writer-director of Bob Roberts, the new political satire.

The timing–with just seven weeks before the Presidential Elections–could not have been better. Structured as a mock documentary, not unlike This Is Spinal Tap, Bob Reiner’s hilarious parody of a rock documentary, Bob Roberts examines the childhood and political career of a Pennsylvania senatorial candidate, focusing on his election campaign–and win.

Robbins, who plays a self-styled “rebel conservative” with a good deal of oily charisma, has studied the work of his mentor, Robert Altman, pretty well. Modeled on Altman’s landmark film Nashville, the satire is actually a musical; Roberts is a folk singer turned politician.

Some of the shrewdest lines appear in the lyrics of the songs written by David Robbins, Tim’s brother) and in the campaign speeches. Described as a candidate who is not “one of those liberals who makes you feel guilty about what’s wrong in society,” the impassioned Roberts tells his fans: “Why can’t you get ahead Why has your American dream been relegated to the ashcan of history”

But Bob Roberts is not without his opponents. In one of the film’s best scenes, the candidate is slated to appear on a “Saturday Night Live” type program called “Cutting Edge–Live.” But the producer’s assistant is so appalled by the “yuppie fascist,” that she literally pulls the plug on him.

Bob Roberts is set in October l990, during the Gulf War crisis, though the movie does not make much explicit use of its political context. You may ask what are the issues in Roberts’ campaign What’s on the sneaky, but also charming, demagogue’s agenda To answer these questions, you just have to look at his albums, titled “The Freewheeling Bob Roberts,” “The Times Are Changing Back,” and “Bob on Bob,” which are all parodies of Bob Dylan’s recordings.

I suspect that Bob Roberts will be mostly seen by people who have already made up their minds about the candidates–it will not persuade the undecided. Furthermore, it’s likely to be dismissed by Bush’s supporters, even though the movie contains strong ammunition, on both the domestic and foreign fronts, against the 12-year Republican administration.

To Robbins’ credit as a writer-director-star, the treatment of the material is light and it’s presented in a most entertaining mode. The structure of his satire is subtle and complex enough to send conflicting signals to the viewers concerning its creators’ intentions and overt political stand; Democratic and Republican viewers will have their own supporting evidence of “what’s wrong with America” and “who’s guilty.”

Bob Roberts doesn’t wear its politics on its sleeves like, say, the blunt and blatant propaganda in Oliver Stone’s movies (Platoon, Wall Street, JFK). You may fault the satire for not cutting deep enough into its subject matter and for refusing to allow the camera to get close to the characters; the camera observes the proceedings from a far, in a detached manner, letting the viewers make up their own minds about the symbolic meanings of what they see.

Robbins’ movie also lacks the cynical, issue-oriented approach of Robert Redford’s vehicle, The Candidate, made by Michael Ritchie precisely 20 years ago. In the keenly observed Candidate, based on Jeremy Larner’s Oscar-winning screenplay, Redford played an idealist who is talked into running for Senate and in the process learns the shrewd, immoral operations of the American political machine.

Bob Roberts is an entirely different movie: It assumes that the public already knows what it takes to run–and win–elections. Robbins’ movie works best as a smooth and effortless, though not airless, overview of American politics and pop culture of the last decade.

The production values of Bob Roberts are of high caliber in every department. Robbins borrowed Altman’s favorite cinematographer, Jean Lepine, to give the film its fitting look. And he has surrounded himself with a first-rate ensemble, mostly in cameo or small roles. Like The Player, you will have fun detecting Robbins’ life companion and mother of his two children, the great Susan Sarandon, as a TV anchor woman; James Spader, Fred Ward, and Pamela Reed, as news people; Alan Rickman, as the campaign manager, and others.

But perhaps the greatest coup of casting is assigning celebrity novelist–and sometime politician–Gore Vidal (who years back wrote the script of Henry Fonda’s political film Fail-Safe) to the major role of the liberal incumbent Brickley Paiste. Considering that Bob Roberts features a writing and directorial debut, it’s a respectable achievement.