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Film Review: Bob Roberts

  Bob Roberts

Review By Dan Geddes

As we enter another surreal election year, it’s a good time to check out Bob Roberts (1992), a dead-on political satire.

Tim Robbins stars as a millionaire Republican folk singer running for the Senate in Pennsylvania. As a young man, Bob parlayed a token investment into a $40 million empire. Now he sings Bob Dylan-esque folk songs, except that they feature conservative platitudes ("this is land is my land"). The media loves Bob and his free-wheelin’ campaign, and usually refers to him as the "rebel" candidate.

A British documentary filmmaker follows Bob’s campaign, and is awed by the multi-talented Bob. Bob fences in the morning, then resumes his barnstorming campaign in his Winnebago (which features a stock trading floor from which Bob buys and sells equities), before his night of singing appearances or officiating beauty pageants.

Bob, with no experience and public service, is trying to unseat five-term Seantor Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal), a "liberal" senator. Bob’s first attack is to photograph Paiste with a teenage girl in his car (who turns about to be a friend of his granddaughter’s, not visible in the photograph). From then on, the television news anchors then refer to this "scandal" whenever mentioning Paiste's name. Although Paiste is victim of Bob Roberts’ dirty trick campaign, the Paiste character at least allows Vidal to state his own belief that the US Government has been a national security state, waging wars both cold and hot since 1950 to serve the military-industrial complex.

Tim Robbins’ script satirizes some of the main political events of the 1980s and early 1990s. The Bob Roberts campaign has its own Iran-Contra-like scandal. Bob’s campaign chairman (Alan Rickman, in a hilarious performance) is questioned by a Congressional committee about his Broken Dove organization. Broken Dove is suspected of collecting money from a Savings & Loan in order to build housing for the homeless, but using the money to buy cargo planes drug-smuggling from South America. Bob Roberts changes Broken Dove into a charitable organization, partly in order to cover its checkered past.

Bob Roberts (1992) belongs on the shortlist of classic Hollywood political satire with Dr. Strangelove and Wag the Dog. Writer-Director-Star Tim Robbins (The Player) clearly made this out of a certain indignation over the patriotic effluvia that accompanied the Gulf War of 1990-91. Bob Roberts has the courage to be subtle, to not make its humor painfully obvious. It has the faith to walk right up to the edge of verisimilitude, to be so plausible that some might not recognize it has satire. The film has a slightly unfamililar feel, as we realize how rare is deadpan satire in Ameican movies.

Dan Geddes

5 January 2004