Bob Roberts

(Tim Robbins, USA, 1992)


Fresh from his success in Robert Altman's The Player (1992), Tim Robbins chose as his directorial debut a satire on political campaigning, cleverly timed to coincide with the 1992 American elections. Even more fortuitously for Robbins, the title character of Bob Roberts – who is (as played by Robbins himself) an insidious mixture of right-wing ideology, showbiz charisma and unlimited riches – was then uncannily mirrored in the real-life campaign by Ross Perot.

As a film, Bob Roberts is a strenuously busy and colourful affair. Presenting itself (in the manner of This is Spinal Tap, 1984) as a mock documentary, it follows the enigmatic Roberts through the hurly-burly of his campaign. Roberts began his brilliant career as a folk singer, appropriating Bob Dylan's rebellious 1960s image for conservative 1990s ends (one of his many rousing revisionist anthems is "The Times are Changing Back"). Now backed by a shady capitalist entrepreneur, Lukas Hart III (Alan Rickman in full-on villain mode) and groomed by an expert team of media manipulators, Roberts seems destined for the top job in Washington.

With his folksy ditties and homespun homilies about 'family values', Roberts is a grotesque parody of the 'everyman' heroes that once populated Frank Capra's films. Robbins' observations on the contemporary political circus are withering, animated by a leftist anger not evident in mainstream cinema since Altman's films of the '70s. From blatantly biased newsreaders to CIA-managed conspiracies in Third World countries, the film points the finger at a system that appears irredeemably corrupt at every level.

Yet, where Altman would have satirised characters of all political persuasions, Robbins erects a simple-minded good vs. evil dichotomy. Virtually every scene includes a heroic, left-liberal spokesperson – poor, black, female or gay – who loudly denounces the fascist Roberts and is then suppressed. This dramatic device is wholly without ambiguity or irony; we are clearly meant to cheer the 'oppressed' and hiss the oppressors. It's a pity that a film which so sharply criticizes ideological manipulation should fall prey to its own smug sense of 'political correctness'.

Bob Roberts was one of the emptiest and most overrated 'events' of its year – and, like many overrated films, subsequently quickly forgotten.

© Adrian Martin January 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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