Running Time: 102 minutes.
Tag-line: "Vote first. Ask questions later."
Notable Cast or Crew: Tim Robbins (THE PLAYER, TAPEHEADS), Giancarlo Esposito (DO THE RIGHT THING, THE USUAL SUSPECTS), Alan Rickman (DIE HARD, MICHAEL COLLINS), Ray Wise (TWIN PEAKS, SWAMP THING), Gore Vidal (GATTACA, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE), Harry Lennix (TITUS, DOLLHOUSE), Tom Atkins (THE FOG, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), David Strathairn (THE RIVER WILD, SNEAKERS), James Spader (TUFF TURF, Pamela Reed (TANNER '88, THE RIGHT STUFF), Helen Hunt (TRANCERS, PROJECT X, TWISTER), Peter Gallagher (THE UNDERNEATH, MALICE, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE), Lynne Thigpen (WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SANDIEGO, SHAFT '00), Jack Black (THE NEVERENDING STORY III, DEMOLITION MAN), Susan Sarandon (THE HUNGER, THELMA & LOUISE), Fred Ward (REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES, THE PLAYER), Fisher Stevens (SHORT CIRCUIT, MY SCIENCE PROJECT), Bob Balaban (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, MOONRISE KINGDOM), John Cusack (TAPEHEADS, THE GRIFTERS), Jeremy Piven (DR. JEKYLL & MS. HYDE, THE PLAYER). Cinematography by Jean Lépine (THE PLAYER, TANNER '88).
Best One-liner: "The times they are a-changin' back!"
I'll begin this review with a quote from IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE, a 1935 novel novel by Sinclair Lewis, which imagines America's first Fascist president. He's a fellow by the name of "Buzz Windrip," and his coronation takes place at a convention in Cleveland. I'll let Lewis describe him for you:
"[Buzz] was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his 'ideas' almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.
BOB ROBERTS––Tim Robbins' equally prescient 1992 political mockumentary––essentially picks up where Sinclair Lewis left off. It tells the story of a populist Pennsylvanian singer, Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins),...Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man. Oh, he was common enough. He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. ...But he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering above them, and they raised hands to him in worship."
who is running for the U.S. Senate against a stereotypically intellectual incumbent (Gore Vidal).
Apparently Gore Vidal improvised much of his dialogue by reciting his own political positions.
Equally inspired by the panoramic satire of Robert Altman (with whom Robbins collaborated three times) and the comedic sensibilities of THIS IS SPINAL TAP, Robbins creates one of the more perceptive, mean-spirited, and amusing political films of our time. ...And, at the risk of quoting Richard Nixon, we need it "now more than ever."
This movie had been on my to-see list for some time, and when I read J.D. at Radiator Heaven's wonderful take on it this March, I knew I had to track it down.
A breezy corporate "folk" singer with the trappings of Bob Dylan and the lyrics of Jordan Belfort,
Bob Roberts traffics in yuppie syllogisms, evangelical pandering, white pride dog-whistling, and priggish sanctimony. The Sixties' pendulum has swung back; Bob (semi-sincerely?) considers himself a rebel patriot, and his campaign possesses all the civil apparatus of a social revolution, but he's fighting against ideals like tolerance, enlightenment, and general civility. This brash refutation of Sixties' youth movements feels like the natural outgrowth of the contemporary corporate "nonconformists" who brought us the profundity of a Nike ad using The Beatles' "Revolution" in 1988.
The lyrics of Bob's songs are brilliant in the way the lyrics in THIS IS SPINAL TAP are brilliant––what they're mocking (hair metal and nativist movements, respectively) already exists on such a plane of absurdity that it's nearly indistinguishable from the genuine article. Whether he's firing broadsides at the "nation of complainers" addicted to entitlement culture:
"Like this: / It's society's fault I don't have a job / It's society's fault I'm a slob / I'm a drunk, I don't have a brain / Give me a pamplet while I complain / Hey pal you're living in the land of the free / no one's gonna hand you opportunity..."
engaging in colonial cosplay:
or singing the dangers of letting "Godless men" in past our walls, who'll "take the jobs of the decent ones":
we've sort of moved beyond satire, and into "reenactment," a mirror reflection of the worst angels of our nature (with the fringe fantasies of 1992 existing in the limelight of 2016).
Tim Robbins perfectly inhabits the role of the neighborly fanatic, the apple-pie extremist; excellent at glad-handing, even as he lines you up against the wall. Certainly every politician carries a bit of the "poseur" about them, but the cold-blooded strain that flows through Bob Roberts is chilling, and all too real. The rest of the cast is wonderful, and fully in tune with the grotesque tendencies of the American political system––it's a veritable playground for character actors and glorified cameos, like:
Alan Rickman, as Bob's campaign chairman (and Oliver North stand-in), whose performance is filled with serpentine acting choices that hint at hidden menace:
Ray Wise as Bob's campaign manager, who's able to play off of Rickman's terrifying energy with one of the best glossy, soulless smiles in film history:
It's a veritable 'soulless smile' showdown.
Tom Atkins as Bob's jovial/oddly intimidating personal physician:
Giancarlo Esposito as an obsessive progressive journalist, who could very well be a character from an Oliver Stone film:
Jack Black as an unbalanced teen (you know the kind, the kid who carves swastikas into desks and burns you with paper clips) who finds in Bob Roberts what TAXI DRIVER's Travis Bickle could only dream he'd get out of the Palatine campaign:
Bob Balaban as a thinly-veiled version of Lorne Michaels (during a controversial Bob Roberts television appearance, with SNL transformed into "CUTTING EDGE LIVE") and John Cusack as a politically outspoken actor:
Peter Gallagher, Helen Hunt, Lynne Thigpen, James Spader,
Susan Sarandon & Fred Ward,
and Pamela Reed as newscasters.
Pamela Reed, star of Robert Altman's political mockumentary HBO miniseries TANNER '88. Clearly, the Gary Trudeau-penned series was a major influence on BOB ROBERTS (though it is considerably less mean-spirited), and Robbins even hired the same cinematographer, Jean Lépine.
Essentially, Bob Roberts' candidacy begins as a joke, builds momentum,
balloons to a size that the responsibly rational can no longer ignore,
Roberts' goons rough up the protesters...
and ends in a dark, dark place––far darker than most satirical comedy dares to go. As usual, the true horror is in the way these Fascist tendencies mushroom and flourish among the mob, like a night-flowering vine, or at least like an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE: