Bob Roberts (review)

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Times Are Changin’ Back

It’s been a while since I watched Tim Robbins’s sublime Bob Roberts, and I forgot how hilarious and pointed it is. Only eight years old, this razor-sharp mockumentary about a neo-fascist yuppie running for the U.S. senate from Pennsylvania is barely satire anymore. Who but a comedy writer could come up with the concept of “compassionate conservatism,” which as far as I can tell, translates as “We don’t help the poor and needy, but we feel really bad about that”? Who but a modern day Jonathan Swift could invent a Democratic ticket that blatantly courts Hollywood money out of one side of its mouth and then condemns the very products that rake in some of those millions?
English reporter Terry Manchester (Brian Murray) follows the October 1990 senatorial campaign of Roberts (Tim Robbins: Mission to Mars, Arlington Road) as he stumps his way across Pennsylvania. Roberts is an embodiment of the American dream, Manchester believes, if a rather twisted version of that dream. A self-made multimillionaire, his fortune comes from somewhat suspicious Wall Street deals as well as the proceeds from his music: Roberts is a folk singer, a bard for the right, an anti-60s Bob Dylan who sees that decade as “a dark stain on American history,” and he’s not talking about Vietnam, the Watts riots, or the Bay of Pigs. Roberts has coopted the music of protest to prop up his extreme right-wing “values” — protest equals communism in Roberts’s eye, and while his being rich is just one of those funny quirks of life, being poor is akin to a crime.

Roberts’s campaign stops are often concerts, where he plays his tunes, like “Drugs Stink” and “Times Are Changin’ Back,” to adoring crowds of white people upset that they’re not as wealthy as Roberts but willing to blame all the poor “ethnic” people who somehow keep them down instead of their own lack of initiative or just plain bad luck. Robbins puts his boyish appeal to good use, creating a charismatic, seemingly laid-back charmer at the center of his self-made cult of personality. His fans are laugh-out-loud funny but scary, especially Jack Black as a young Republican so in awe of Roberts he can barely speak when they meet, so intensely full of inexpressible rage that he trembles. All that keeps this fan and his similarly furious brothers from coming off entirely as neo-Nazis are their conservative suits and ties and trenchcoats — but leave it to writer/director Robbins, never one to pull any punches (see Cradle Will Rock), to make this plain and conservative attire a frightening punctuation mark, a uniform just as ugly as the one that came with jackboots, by the time the film is over.

Down to the tiniest details, Bob Roberts is one withering political jab after another… but only if you’re sympathetic to Robbins’s liberal agenda. He’s unafraid to make Roberts every bit the fascist worthy of those fans, invoking religion at every turn to justify his own hypocritical, bordering-on-criminal behavior, snapping neat Nazi-esque waves, advocating, in song, stringing up “dirty hippie freaks” who do drugs, and spouting slogans like the simple “Pride,” by which he really means “Rich White European-American Pride.” (One of the best lines in the film is Roberts’s advice to a child: “Don’t do crack, it’s a ghetto drug.”)

The process of getting elected is under attack, too, from the candidate’s blond and pink and silent wife (Merrilee Dale), who never says a word in public but looks sweet and supportive standing next to her husband, to the shady campaign manager, Lukas Hart III (Alan Rickman: Galaxy Quest, Dogma), who can do the dirty deeds that need to be done to get his man into office while maintaining his own relatively clean reputation. Big media doesn’t get a free ride, either: Nearly to a one, every newscaster or journalist here is a buffoon, and a roster of famous faces have a ball sending up TV news: Fred Ward, Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, and Helen Hunt, in small roles, play characters with names like Rock, Tawny, or Chip, turning news into content-free entertainment. James Spader is brilliant here, emphasizing unlikely syllables and cocking eyebrow continually in a dead-on parody of a news anchor.

Just about the only sympathetic characters, in fact, are Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), a journalist for a newspaper called Troubled Times, and incumbent senator Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal: GATTACA). Raplin actually searches for the nasty truth behind Roberts, no matter what the danger (and danger there is), and Paiste takes the high road and eschews negative campaigning. Raplin is excitable and energetic, Paiste world-weary, but both know they are unlikely to make much difference.

With political Boomers all seemingly turning into sanctimonious, hypocritical, moralizing Bible thumpers these days, CNN could run Bob Roberts, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was real, if terrifyingly so.

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