After a summer of pandering mediocrity, it's gratifying to discover a new director who is this eager to kick ass. Tim Robbins inaugurates the fall season with a slashingly funny political satire that ranks with the year's best films. Bob Roberts adds up to a hat-trick victory for its writer, director and star. This is clearly the year of Tim Robbins. In two richly observed performances, he has incarnated the evil twins of media and politics. As studio exec Griffin Mill in Robert Altman's Player, he etched the definitive portrait of Hollywood soullessness. Now as senatorial candidate Bob Roberts, he serves up Mill's Washington counterpart -- a folk--singing fascist yuppie hawking dreams to an electorate all too willing to be distracted from the real issues. Robbins's debut as a director is exceptionally accomplished. He shrewdly balances his sense of purpose with a flair for mischief.
In format the film most resembles Rob Reiner's hilarious rockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. No straight narrative for Robbins. Bob's run for one of Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seats in 1990 (the Desert Shield era) is seen exclusively through the lens of British documentarian Terry Manchester, played by an incisively wry Brian Murray. We learn about Bob through watching him on the road and through interviews with his associates and family (his wife is presented as a blond nonentity). Bob rebelled against his hippie parents, went to military school, wrote music that attacked the Sixties ("a dark stain on American history"), got a degree in business at Yale, made millions and financed his own record label. Bob was too smart to let his vanities perish in the Eighties bonfire. His campaign bus is a trading floor that he leaves only for personal appearances or a fencing match.
At times the documentary framing device is a limitation; there's only one unguarded moment of Bob going ballistic, and that occurs when he thinks the camera is off. But Robbins, cinematographer Jean Lepine and editor Lisa Churgin fill even the corners of the screen with character information. The film demands attention; even better, it rewards it.
Timely parallels abound: Bob dresses and talks reactionary like Bush, campaigns in a bus like Clinton (think of it -- on the road with Bob on guitar and Bill on sax), spouts racist bile like Duke and finances his own hype like Perot. But Robbins isn't aiming at candidates. His target is manipulation -- the rise of image over issues. It doesn't matter what your platform is; it's how you sell it.
Bob's gimmick is twisting the peace anthems of the Sixties to push military spending and welfare squashing. Take his campaign ditties -- barbed parodies written by Robbins and his brother David: "I wanna be rich, I don't have a brain/So give me a handout while I complain." Or his proposal for bringing justice to drug dealers: "Hang'em high for a clean-living land." Robbins, the son of Gil Robbins of the Highwaymen ("Michael Row the Boat Ashore"), sings these tunes straight. Bob is no Mr. Potatoe Head; he preys on the ignorance of others.
The driving force behind Bob is his sleazy campaign manager, a former CIA operative named Lukas Hart III, played with glorious malevolence and brilliant wit by Alan Rickman (Robin Hood). Having scored on the charts by inverting songs by Bob Dylan ("Times Are Changing Back") and Woody Guthrie ("This Land Was Made for Me"), guitar-strumming Bob will launch his political career with music, further hyped by MTV videos like the uproariously vile "Wall Street Rap."
Hart, PR man Chet MacGregor (Ray Wise) and Bob know how to play dirty. They plant rumors that Bob's rival -- the liberal incumbent, Senator Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) -- has been cheating on his wife with a teenager. Vidal, the acid-tongued author and former candidate for Congress, is superb, playing the old war horse with irresistible blowhard charm.
Bob's appeal is based on the sound bite. And Robbins mines every intonation for maximum smarm. With a mayor's wife (Anita Gillette) and her hyperventilating son (Jack Black), he plays off his celebrity. "I wish there was a way I could vote for you a hundred times," the lady says in awe. "There is," says Bob, clocking in a wide-eyed pause. "Just kidding."
It's a kick watching Bob manipulate reporters ("You do such wonderful work on the news -- always watch ya") or deflect an occasional tough question with a baby-faced grin or a curt "Thank you for your time." Robbins owes a debt to Altman's landmark political TV series Tanner '88 and to the director's use of big names in small roles in films like Nashville and The Player. But Robbins's contempt for media superficiality is equally strong and cuts just as deep. Susan Sarandon, Peter Gallagher, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed and James Spader take particularly delicious swipes at news anchors.
The one member of the press Bob can't finesse is wild man Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito in an outstanding performance), a black reporter for the underground Troubled Times. Bugs accuses Bob of fronting a company that diverts public-housing funds in order to buy transport planes and smuggle cocaine. Bugs is too much of a flake for the establishment press to notice. But the Bob machine does, resulting in drastic covert action.
The film's increasing gravity isn't a downer -- the situation requires it. Robbins knows that Bob is merely a symptom of a larger problem that won't go away until we overcome the apathy that allows forces to control our thinking. Sure, the finale, at the Jefferson Memorial, is as cornball as Capra. Ditto the film's final image, a card reading, VOTE. Maybe Robbins is being naive in thinking that his impassioned little $4 million movie will help to change things. More power to him.