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Entries in Bob Roberts [1992] (1)

Tuesday
Nov062012

Bob Roberts (1992)

Get Out the Veto!

I used to think Bob Roberts was funny. That was twenty years ago, when I naively understood Tim Robbins' faux documentary to be a comedy. On election day 2012, the satire plays like a horror film. The "jokes" are prescient jabs at just how thoroughly industry and media have steamrolled the American people two decades later.

In the movie-within-the-movie, documentarian Terry Manchester (Brian Murray) follows a heated 1990 Pennsylvania Senate race between septuagenarian Liberal incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) and thirty-five-year-old Conservative millionaire Bob Roberts (Robbins). Paiste, an old-fashioned believer in public programs and honest campaigning, has a slight edge Roberts, who preaches Gordon Gecko's prosperity gospel via the chart-topping songs he's created as a Republican contemporary-folk singer. If this sounds like a contradiction, that's the point: in a sinister yet effective PR move, Roberts performs sweet-sounding tunes, which seek to dismantle the very social change that inspired the art form.

Manchester and his film crew travel with Roberts and his people aboard "The Pride", a campaign bus/global-financial-markets hub. In between early-morning fencing matches, talk show appearances, and rallies that double as concerts, the highly motivated team of moneymakers are constantly on the phone or pounding away on computers, chasing and defining world stock trends. And they are rightly frustrated that their candidate (whose net worth is somewhere north of $40 million) is having trouble beating a senior citizen with outmoded hippie values, and who espouses conspiracy theories about the corrupting influence of the military/industrial complex.

The solution, of course, is to exploit (and possibly plant) a non-story about Paiste's alleged affair with a sixteen-year-old campaign staffer. Though effective, the polling doesn't increase Roberts' margin enough to ensure a decisive win. So they get really, really dirty, with a stunt I won't spoil here.

Suffice it to say, Roberts' team devises a darkly ingenious way to martyr their candidate without actually killing him--thereby cementing his status as not only an unflappable crusader, but also a Neo-Christ figure for the Me Generation. Their bold strategy also does away with Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), a nosy reporter eager to pin the campaign's brain trust to failed Savings and Loan schemes and a South American dope-smuggling operation. No one is happier with this plot's success than campaign mastermind Lucas Hart III (Alan Rickman), a former CIA operative who narrowly escaped conviction during Iran-Contra-style Congressional hearings a few years before--in an investigation spearheaded by Brickley Paiste.

Bob Roberts is one of my favorite films, and I revisit it every few years as a sort of political Rorschach test. Existing somewhere between the easy-target parody of Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap and Christopher Guest's freak shows-with-heart mockumentaries, Tim Robbins' film seems to have gotten lost in the popular consciousness. Which is a shame, because it is perhaps the most perfect version of the art form. The film is so expertly conceived, shot, and put together that I've been hard-pressed to find a "wink" in the dozen or so times I've seen it. Sadly, this may be the result of the Roberts campaign and the sycophantic media that covers him becoming less recognizable as cartoon characters since 1992 and more cemented as the kind of bizarre political animals you're likely to see when turning on the television today.

Forgive my use of labels here, but I can imagine a Conservative watching this movie and being shocked that a notorious Hollywood Liberal like Robbins would have "switched sides" to make an homage to traditional Republican values. I can also imagine a classic Progressive watching this movie and laughing at Roberts, the narcissistic, money-mongering suit--while also failing to grasp that his brand of evil is not strictly partisan.

On the surface, it's easy to tell which of the current Presidential candidates is more like Bob Roberts than the other. But in the years since the movie came out, both parties have drifted towards a disturbing commonality of millionaire nominees with a penchant for war-mongering, austerity, and media manipulation the likes of which we've never seen.

Revisiting the film last night, Brickley Paiste--in his sincerity, knowledge, and decency--seemed like a time traveller from two hundred years ago. Part of me has always felt that way about his character, particularly in contrast to the chilling modernity of his opponent. But I could always take comfort in a solid laugh at several of Robbins' well-observed jokes. I barely cracked a smile last night, thinking about today's grand showdown of the Lesser of Two Evils and wondering if I'll ever again feel hopeful enough to engage in a sick process devoid of heroes. When the reality of our current political process can be summed up in a slick, decades-old Mad Magazine-style parody, what hope is there?

To quote Roberts' ironic idol, Bob Dylan, "The times, they are a-changin'".

Note: It's telling that Robbins never approved the release of a Bob Roberts soundtrack album. His film is packed with funny, catchy folk songs that attack welfare queens, drug users, peaceniks, and every other enemy of bootstrap Conservatism. They're so well-written and performed so straight that he worried about their out-of-context adoption as anthems for a party he despises. Listen to any one of these tunes, and it's hard to argue with his concerns; the themes and lyrics are, sadly, timeless, and it's easy to imagine them playing as bumper music on Rush Limbaugh's or Michael Savage's radio programs.