Bob Roberts (1992)
Written & Directed by Tim Robbins
During the 1990 Pennsylvania Senate race the world was introduced to candidate Bob Roberts via a documentary being made by Terry Manchester, an English filmmaker. Roberts stuck out so starkly in the political landscape first as a Billboard charting folk singer, recontextualizing the word of Bob Dylan into Conservative screeds against the Left. As Manchester explored the meteoric rise of Roberts, he discovered a connection to former CIA agent Lukas Hart and his failed Central American gun-running efforts. There is also the constant figure of Bugs Raplin, a journalist who is out to uncover the truth about Bob Roberts and stop his ascension to the seat of power in Washington D.C.
Bob Roberts is a complicated film to look at in our current political context. It’s not in any way the Christopher Guest-style mockumentary it gets spoken about by some fans as. The film starts off silly enough, highlighting the silly folk music of Roberts with popular songs like “Times Are a-Changin’ Back,” “Complain,” and “The Voting Song.” The songs express ideology of the militant Right, especially young Wall Street types of the Reagan era. They are incredibly on the nose and absurd.
Then a strange shift comes in tone, and Bob Roberts becomes what I would argue a is a found footage horror film. The darkness that is presented in Roberts and the conspiracy his campaign concocts doesn’t feel funny and isn’t presented humorously. It is still profoundly a satire just not a comedic one. I wasn’t laughing very much in the film’s third act, but I was impressed with how relevant this subject matter continues to be. One the one hand it’s comforting to know we have been in these dark places before but on the other it’s unsettling how often the cycle repeats itself.
Tim Robbins is writing and directing here and wears his influences on his sleeve. He’s a fan of Bob Dylan, and much of the film is shaped by the style of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. One interesting note that despite Robbins’ penning the script, much of Gore Vidal’s scenes, playing Roberts’ opponent, were ad-libbed by Vidal and based on his personal views of American politics. While Robbins does an excellent job of creating a stable structure and framing device for his film, there is one glaring problem: Bob Roberts is not a character.
Within the first 20 minutes of the film we know everything there is to know about Roberts. Now I can see how some of that is part of the theme of the film. Roberts is a blank slate, using modern marketing techniques he shapes himself into the candidate the people want. However, this makes him an incredibly uninteresting character to follow through the story. There are lots of strong supporting roles, but when the crux of the film revolves around the Roberts character, it’s hard as an audience member to care about what is happening. Robbins isn’t afraid to wear his politics on his sleeve, so the film also ends up feeling too on the nose with its commentary. It just keeps repeating the same note over and over, “Isn’t Bob a terrible crypto-fascist?” Yes, I agree but what else? In many ways, the film ends up feeling like the worst of Oliver Stone, where I, as a left winger, feel like there is a more exciting way to get across these same ideas.