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Bob Roberts: Special Edition

Artisan Home Entertainment

Starring Tim Robbins, Alan Rickman, Giancarlo Esposito,
and Gore Vidal

Written and directed by Tim Robbins

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

At the very end of Bob Roberts the camera reverently scrolls along this quote as etched in the marble of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.:

"I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Which just goes to show, what debuting director Tim Robbins lacks in satire he makes up for in irony. For rarely does there come a film that can rival the 1992 Bob Roberts in intellectual tyranny. Robbins, we have good faith to believe, set out to craft a biting political satire, but in the process became so choked up by his own ideology that he forgot to adhere to satire's golden rule: "No sacred cows."

It's difficult to approach Bob Roberts apolitically, as it is itself about as impartial as a campaign smear-ad (the very kind the film pokes funs at in its funniest moment). Obviously, viewers not aligned with Robbins' leftist ideology will coil at the unbalanced misrepresentation of their ethics, while those in tune with his politics will either merrily join in the spite or feel a rushing tide of embarrassment at this endless barrage of sucker-punches.

But this review is not about politics — it's about filmmaking. And the following critique is grounded solely on this basis: As a "satire," does Bob Roberts mine maximum humor from its subject, skillfully weaving said satire into an involving narrative, thereby resulting in the entertainment of thoughtful viewers? And the answer is "no" — rather, its promise is consistently undermined by an agenda that has nothing to do with comedy nor entertainment, and everything to do with demagoguery.

Robbins stars as Bob Roberts, a U.S. Senate candidate from Pennsylvania who cleverly co-opts the image of the 1960s rebel — he sings folk songs, he rides a motorcycle — but twists them to serve and promote "conservative" values (which are represented here as essentially an obsession with money). He is a master of image manipulation. So far so good.

Eventually we meet Roberts' opponent, Democratic incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal), but then the tone of the film changes. Where Roberts is portrayed in extremes as a slick rat, Paiste is simply a beleaguered old man who wants to talk about the issues but finds himself quickly on the defensive as he's falsely implicated in a sex scandal.

As Bob Roberts progresses — in the form of a documentary on the Roberts campaign — this ideological imbalance steadily sinks the film. We are treated to scene after scene of Roberts and his campaign being mocked as petty, sneaky, racist, bullying, and cruel, and scene after scene of sincere liberals protesting with righteous indignance — but without a trace of exaggeration.

There's no doubt in my mind that politics is fertile ground for satire, with neither liberals nor conservatives cornering the market on spin, hypocrisy, sleaze-tactics, pandering, ridiculous extremism, supercilious reaction to polling, or demonizing opponents. And a well-balanced, thorough attack that sends both the left and the right running for cover would be welcome.

Case in point: Election director Alexander Payne's debut film Citizen Ruth hit just the right tone, and on the unlikely subject of abortion. Payne roasts radicals on both sides, and mercilessly, and hilariously. He also makes a shrewd choice that never occurred to Robbins: don't attack the ideology, attack the methodology. Political rants in films — especially one-sided rants that last for 102 minutes — get old, fast. But Payne has another trump card in Citizen Ruth: a protagonist caught between the warring factions who acts as an emotional anchor amidst the craziness.

Apparently, for Robbins, there is no in-between. You're either a greedy, criminal crypto-fascist conservative or a righteous liberal on the side of truth. Using the stylistic pretense of a faux-documentary, Robbins makes no attempt to exploit the narrative possibilities offered by the faux-documentarian (Brian Murray). An Englishman, this filmmaker would've made an ideal outsider caught in the middle of U.S. politics at its worst, but he remains a cipher. He seems to have no point-of-view (which is unlike any documentary filmmaker I've ever met), nor any investment in his subject. Why is he making this film? Why this particular candidate? Instead, we simply see him nod in agreement when interviewing liberals and toward the end proclaim that Bob Roberts isn't good for America. Oh, is that what this film was trying to say? Thanks for the explanation.

If anyone is meant to act as a protagonist in Bob Roberts, I suppose it's Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), the radical investigative reporter who gets so close to exposing Roberts in a shady housing deal that he's first framed for a staged assassination attempt on Roberts and later murdered. As the film devotes more time to Raplin, the more it bogs itself down, completely shaking any remaining illusion of satire and giving in to long speeches about corruption.

Speeches are boring. And so is "tyranny over the mind of man" as practiced by Robbins, whose tactics behind the camera are very bit as greedy, myopic, fascist, and corrupt as the fictional candidate he singles out for ridicule. And this kind of one-sided diatribe, with no opportunity for enlightening discourse, is like throwing snowballs at a blind cripple. How healthy for free thought. And while Robbins' inability to detach his personal views may not surprise those familiar with his strident activism, his follow-up film, the achingly emotional death-row drama Dead Man Walking, delicately and brilliantly tip-toed between opponents and proponents of capital punishment, presenting the issue in human terms without rhetoric. The disparity in quality between these two films is plain to see.

In technical terms, Bob Roberts is fine. Well-shot, and well-acted by a star-studded cast, including Alan Rickman and cameos by Susan Sarandon, John Cusack, Peter Gallagher, Fred Ward, Helen Hunt, James Spader, and a sharp early appearance by High Fidelity scene-stealer Jack Black. Artisan's special-edition DVD is feature-packed, with a good transfer in the original full-frame (1.33:1) and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Also on board are three commentary tracks — one with Robbins, another with Robbins and Vidal together, and a third track with Counterpunch editors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, which has nothing to do with the movie but rather is a detailed discussion of CIA-related drug conspiracies.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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