Vote First. Ask Questions Later.
Be a clean livin' man with a rope in your hand.
In 1992 came a politically astute, intelligent satire done in the Altman style of mock-documentary. Bob Roberts is that film, which has a passing resemblance to that other luminary "mockumentary" This Is Spinal Tap. Tim Robbins (The Player, Arlington Road) wrote, directed and starred in this film which pins the ears back on the right wing and casts a wide shadow over our political system even today. Especially considering this was his directorial debut, this is a powerful and influential film too easily dismissed by one side of the political spectrum, and easily embraced by the other. Too long kept under wraps, this film only now has the chance to reach wide distribution with this outstanding DVD release from Artisan. With I have a gripe or two on the DVD front, this is still a first class special edition of a film that deserves your attention.
Facts of the Case
Bob Roberts (Robbins) is a seemingly affable politician with a decided twist or three up his sleeve. He takes the image of the 1960s and turns it 180 degrees to the purposes of the far right. A folk singer that writes songs of despising the poor and hanging drug users while lauding the rich, he is the antithesis of singers like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. In the case of Dylan especially, he gives a broad wink with song titles such as "Times are a-Changin' Back," and expresses the greed and selfishness of the age with "This Land Was Made For Me." He travels about in a van loaded to the brim with computers and brokers trading 24 hours a day. Between the stocks and the hit records he has amassed a fortune, and is now trying to displace incumbent Senator Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) in the state of Pennsylvania, by any means necessary.
A British documentary crew follows Roberts as he goes through the campaign, often recording things not meant for public consumption. Meanwhile a scruffy investigative reporter (Giancarlo Esposito) has dug up the dirt on the would-be Senator, tying him to the S&L debacle of the '80s and Iran/Contra to boot. How Roberts deals with this threat, and the campaign as a whole makes for a troubling story.
The bare story is almost beside the point as the film captures the essence of dirty politics and the degree image has replaced substance in our candidates. From shady dealings comes the rise to riches and viability as a candidate. Roberts finds legions of white upper crust supporters with his elitist rhetoric that puts rich over poor, white over black, and selfishness over togetherness. Roberts is a complex character, though Robbins portrays him without subtlety The image has little to do with the man, as is shown when the camera is supposed to be off. He is supposedly a self-made millionaire, but it becomes apparent that he did not achieve his wealth without dirty tricks and criminal activities. He calls the 1960s a "dark stain on our history" but only means that when it comes to the protest movements and drug use, while applauding Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, and the police brutality at the 1968 Democratic convention. He speaks of obeying the law and following the rules, but advocates lynching of drug users in his music. Robbins brings all the sides to this person and candidate (not necessarily the same thing) together in a way that reminds me both of real candidates on the right and fictional ones such as the title character in Citizen Kane.
Robbins wrote a very intelligent script to bring this and the other characters to life. Robbins with his brother David wrote the songs which are insidiously close to the true intent of catch phrases from the right wing, such as the chorus to "This Land is Made For Me" which includes "What's Right is Right, what's Left is Wrong." Robbins got an agreement in writing before doing the film that no soundtrack recording would be released for these songs because they literally could be used out of context to support the very things it tries to satirize.
Satire is key to the understanding of the film, but so far I've almost made it sound serious. That is because underneath the satire is real thought about real life. But the film is truly a comedy, with both gentle and not so subtle jabs at various aspect of our political campaigns. The press are treated as mouthpieces to portray spin as hard news, and in most cases it works. A star studded cast play the supporting roles, often as newscasters. Peter Gallagher, Fred Ward, James Spader, Helen Hunt, and Susan Sarandon (Robbin's significant other) all play parts as shills for the political machine in the clothing of journalists. Only a couple reporters see him for what he is, namely Lynne Thigpen as the host of "Good Morning Philadelphia" and Giancarlo Esposito as the muckraking reporter for The Troubled Times. Lines that would be abhorrent if truly meant (and in the film are portrayed as just that) become funny when you realize the satire, such as when Roberts tells a group of kids "Don't use crack, it's a ghetto drug."
The role of the media and the press are a major part of the film's focus. Robbins spoofs the music video business with his own videos for his rightist songs, such as "Wall Street Rap," and the press as they say glowing things about candidate Roberts while being unable to keep a straight face as they laugh through a story on the homeless. Perhaps most telling of the indictment of the press and their love of scandal is when Roberts evens up the race by accusing his opponent of an affair with a teenage girl. When Senator Paiste complains that the photo showing him in a car with a young girl has cut out his granddaughter in the seat next to them as he took them to a local event, the press doesn't adequately follow up.
I already mentioned some of the names in this superlative cast. But Gore Vidal, who has been a candidate for office himself, plays the part of liberal Senator Paiste as if he'd actually held the office for 30 years. He speaks eloquently on subjects such as the homeless and the power brokers behind the scenes in Washington. Jack Black is disturbingly intense as the leader of a group of cultish yuppie supporters. Ray Wise does a fine job as one of Robert's political operatives. John Cusack does a nice turn as the host of a show knocking off Saturday Night Live. But the real nod for performance, only outweighed by Robbins himself, goes to Alan Rickman in his role as Lukas Hart III, Robert's campaign manager and problem solver. An ex-CIA operative, gun-and-drug runner, and master of dirty tricks, he is the man behind the man. The point is made that these un-elected people behind the scenes often mean as much to our future as the politicians themselves.
Bob Roberts is sharp edged satire, comic but intelligent, and dare I say an important film. It is audacious, unflinching in outlook, and scores points on the conservative agenda even as it admits it's own bias. It has a stature that few films looking at politics can match; even Wag the Dog falls short. Funny, insightful, and disturbing, this film worked for me on nearly every level.
Artisan really delivered the goods on the DVD presentation. My biggest complaint is that a full frame transfer is used rather than 1.85:1 ratio with which it made its theatrical run. There is no "formatted to fit your screen" message, so perhaps this is an open matte, but I can't judge. Since the film was shot almost entirely with hand held cameras in a documentary style, the picture quality varies widely. Some shots are done with stationary cameras and the picture quality shines with depth and clarity, and in others the image is soft and grainy. Still others are shot looking at things through television monitors, which are nearly everpresent during the film, and those images are intentionally blurry; distorting the image as television can do when it does not show the whole picture. Considering the source material Artisan did a fine job reproducing it in the digital realm. The sound is only Dolby Surround, but is adequate to this style of film. Dialogue is clear enough, and the music comes through nicely.
It is in the extras department that Artisan really went the extra mile. There is a wealth of extra content including three commentary tracks. The first track is just Tim Robbins as he goes into the technical details of the shooting, and explains a few things that weren't quite clear enough. Robbins is joined by Gore Vidal, famous author and screenwriter, in the second track, which goes more into the philosophy of the film. The third track has little to do with the film itself. Two investigative journalists, Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, speak at length about the details of the Iran/Contra scandal which plays an ancillary role in the film. At first I found it superfluous, as it didn't talk about the film and seemed to be making only vague claims, but as it progressed they went into great detail giving names, dates, and sources of documentation found over the years since any official scrutiny has passed. I found at least some of it compelling, and certainly I believe we never have learned everything there was to know about the debacle and who knew what when.
Twenty-plus minutes of deleted scenes come next, which were in pretty bad shape with plenty of nicks and blemishes. A photo gallery comes next, followed by three "music videos" of Bob Roberts music including "Wall Street Rap," "Drugs Stink," and "I Want to Live," which all came straight out of the film. Thorough cast and crew information, production notes, the theatrical trailer, and two TV spots round out the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If I have any real complaints about the film, it is that one major thread in the film took the wrong tack in my opinion. While I admit the performance of Giancarlo Esposito as the muckraking reporter was sharp edged and convincing, I didn't like the character. I don't mean that in the sense that I just didn't want to have coffee with him; there were plenty of unlikable characters in the film that worked well. I just wish that his character didn't have to be such a unhinged, wild-eyed radical. I know that was the intent that only someone on the fringe would care to find out the truth about the candidate, but I feel the film would have worked better playing it more like a real conflict between the political machine and a reporter we could identify with somewhat.
I also felt that even at 102 minutes the film ran a little too long. Some scenes with Esposito and others with Gore Vidal let them just ramble on at length and I felt they should have been trimmed to avoid a third act lag in the pacing. In one of the commentary tracks Robbins tells how he fought to keep some of those very scenes in the film, but I have to agree with the producers who wanted them cut. Sometimes you can be too close to a film to recognize what works for the best. Some areas weren't presented as clearly as they should and Robbins resorted to explaining them in the commentary track.
The disc would have been better in a couple ways as well. Of course I would always prefer an anamorphic widescreen version over a full frame one. IMDb claims that the film was released in 1.85:1 widescreen and the original aspect ratio should have been preserved. On the extras front, I felt there was too much overlap between the two commentary tracks with Robbins, and on the second track Gore Vidal was recorded separately. I would have preferred the two tracks have worked on different themes, such as one technical and one thematic without as much crossover. The second track would have worked better with Vidal and Robbins carrying on a conversation as well. Last, and I keep repeating myself on reviews of discs from Artisan, there are no subtitles and I think captions for the hearing impaired should be included on every single DVD.
Normally I would complain in the Rebuttal section about a director injecting his own politics into a commentary track. Certainly the commentary tracks, and the film itself, are a soapbox for Tim Robbins' political views. But this film is inherently about politics, and it would never have worked if it tried to take a middle of the road approach. I might have complained that the film was a one trick pony in that Republicans would hate it and Democrats would love it, but that isn't quite true. Certainly the film is unabashedly liberal in the views it prefers. But Republicans can get a lot out of the film as they can be on the lookout for people like Bob Roberts within their own ranks. Democrats might feel uncomfortable about the stance the film and Robbins takes on the war against Iraq which took place during the film's production. Even now he remains against that war; while I have reservations I can't agree with him. Perhaps the toughest thing in reviewing such a film and disc is trying to keep my own political views in check. For such a political film that is nearly impossible. I can't say how I would have felt about the film if I were a die-hard conservative, but I probably wouldn't have liked it as much as I did. As it was, I found much to agree with, though certainly not all.
Whatever your views, this political season as the election draws near is a perfect time to rent or purchase Bob Roberts. Certainly the film will make you think even if you disagree with it. I heartily recommend the disc for the film and extra content.
Tim Robbins and all involved with the film are acquitted without reservation. It took guts and confidence to even get this film made I am sure. Artisan is likewise acquitted for a fine special edition, though I really want them to start including subtitles and use anamorphic widescreen transfers. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Tim Robbins
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