the Freewheelin' Bob Roberts
It's mostly that kind of movie.

Today, I’m bringing you a review from my “greatest movies you’ve never seen” archive. It’s a 1992 political satire produced, written and directed by Tim Robbins about a folk singer from Pennsylvania named Bob Roberts. Mr. Roberts is a folk singer, yes, but he’s not like any folk singer you’ve ever heard of. He’s a rebel conservative–a suit-wearing, Republican-leaning, homeless-hating dictator-in-progress. He sings about taking pride in your wealth and how people who think that giving to the homeless is a good thing shouldn’t vote. And worst of all, he’s running for office in Pennsylvania on policies detailed in his songs. And gaining serious political traction. The film follows his ascent to office from being just a Bizarro-world Bob Dylan to a figure of national stature, invited to play on a Saturday Night Live analogue. They can never have real news shows in these movies, can they?

Bob Roberts is one of those weird movies that only gains relevance with every passing year after its release. Sure, references to KRS-One might be a bit outdated now, but as long as you know that it’s socially conscious hip hop, you’ll get the gag. Bob grew up for the first three years of his life on a peacenik commune in the late fifties. His parents and their friends were rather notoriously hippie freaks, before hippies even became associated with freakdom. At the age of three, however, they moved to a small house in Pennsylvania, yet still tried to instill young Bob with different values than those he has now. The values he has now would best be associated with the modern day Tea Party. His first interview that we see is with possibly the shrewdest woman in the entire movie. In a sane world, she would be seen as winning their debate of ideas on the morning news. Sadly, the world Bob Roberts portrays is as far from a sane world as can be portrayed in satire–it’s our world.

Satire, as I’ve said in my review of Network–another movie from the “greatest movies you’ve never seen” archive–is a fickle beast. It’s hard to get satire right, without falling into parody or melodrama. You have to pull the right strings, push the right buttons, and do the right amount of everything in the right order to give it the perfect blend of realism and exaggeration. Could I believe a figure like Bob Roberts really being able to take an election by storm? I’ve seen it happen since, friends. Political figures elected to office when, the day before the election, I find myself wondering who they are as a person. And I don’t mean “could I have a beer with this man” but “what are his opinions on all of the issues facing America today?” And this was the candidate I supported, let alone the one I thought would turn the country into a fascist hive of scum and villainy.

Bob Roberts is one of the finest scripted mockumentary films I have seen in my life. There are more subtle, intellectual plotlines bubbling under the surface of this film than I’ve seen in even the finest Aaron Sorkin movies. It’s a movie that refuses to underestimate its audience, instead trusting you to see through the layers of parody, pastiche and satire to the truth throughout the feature. I have a stiffie for movies like that, movies where they rely on viewers being as intelligent as they are instead of speaking down to them. Primer was like that; so are The Matrix and Citizen Kane. It’s a point in Bob Roberts favour that the Democratic opposition incumbent candidate, Brickley Paiste, is played by writer/historian Gore Vidal. It’s one of the finest performances in this feature, and he does it by just being his calm, intelligent self.

Tim Robbins was an established presence in Hollywood by the time this film was made, with an eye for young talent. This means that his debut theatrical feature is one of the most immaculately cast films I’ve seen in my time. And these aren’t faces you see all the time in movies. These are faces you see on television, the people who impress you year after year in bit parts and supporting roles. Alan Rickman as Lukas Hart III, you know. He’s delightfully awkward and criminal. Ray Wise, you may not know by name. But when you see his face as Chet MacGregor, you’ll recognize him instantly. Good, because this is the role that started all of that. Tim’s actor friends, when asked if they wanted to be in the project, all said they wanted to play newscasters. James Spader is easily the best of the lot, being as disgustingly saccharine as possible. Funny story, this is also Jack Black’s feature film debut. It may also be his most intensely dramatic performance to date.

Bob Roberts is a musician, and thus, there are indeed songs in this movie. A lot of songs, all of which were written by Tim Robbins and his brother David. All of these songs are as accurate parodies and pastiches as the music of “Weird Al” Yankovic. The songs are so deadpan, so conservative and so disgustingly extreme in their political views that, to this day, Tim Robbins has refused to release a soundtrack compilation of them. For fear that they’d be heard outside the film’s context, and interpreted as sincere. That’s the true spirit of satire–being so very outlandishly exaggerated and hyperbolic to wrap around to deadly accuracy and sincerity for your opponents.

Indeed, Bob Roberts wraps back around to seriousness. Those intelligent political and social undercurrents I mentioned earlier come back to roost in the biggest way in Bob Roberts‘ final act, posing legitimately frightening and risky questions about our political process. Do we care too much about image to really vote for who matters? Are we letting our disenfranchisement and apathy keep us from changing the world? Hell, is world change even possible after being elected to office? These questions and more, along with meditations on the nature of power, how to gain it and how to maintain it, make this movie one of the most effective curveballs in cinematic history. Indeed, with a Machiavellian poseur driving the plot of your feature, it can’t stay funny for very long. FOUR STARS

The most important screenshot.