Rattling The Political Cage

Timely doesn't begin to describe Tim Robbins's political satire, Bob Roberts. This pseudo-documentary account of a 1990 Pennsylvania senatorial race pits a right-wing, folk-singing Yuppie touting "family values" against an aging liberal incumbent who tries to talk about the issues while fending off rumors of a sexual liaison with a teenage girl. From its pointed gibes at the vacuity of TV campaign coverage, its allusions to the then approaching war in the gulf, to its dead-on sendups of the candidates'TV ads, "Bob Roberts" mimics reality so closely it runs the danger of being outdone by the real thing. Which is to say that satirists have a tough job these days. How can you top the absurdities of our current political carnival, in which Newt Gingrich can say with a straight face that the Democrats are following the Woody Allen platform of family values, our Republican president decides he's really the reincarnation of Harry Truman and the religious right is convinced that "militant homosexuals" are trying to take control of the army?

The political process, in writer-director-star Robbins's view, has become so consumed with the manipulation of images that the candidates themselves have become invisible men. Except for one or two unguarded moments, in which the "documentary" camera catches Bob Roberts (Robbins) flying off the handle, we haven't a clue to what's behind the title character's sweet mask of a face. He is only the sum of his biography: the son of a peacenik who ran away from home to enter military school; a Yale grad who made millions on Wall Street; a gold-record folkie who borrows Bob Dylan's "rebel" image to attack bleeding-heart liberals.

His opponent, on the other hand, Sen. Brickley Paiste, is endowed with wise, world-weary humanity by Gore Vidal, who reveals himself to be a superb actor by essentially playing his liberal patrician self, down to his patented ruminations on the ominous rise of the national-security state. It's easy to say that Robbins has stacked the deck, but what political satirist doesn't? What's refreshing is to have a movie that doesn't pull its political punches, that makes you howl with mirth even as your blood boils with familiar outrage.

The only member of the media who uncovers the dark secrets behind Roberts's rise to power is a semihysterical radical journalist named Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito). Because he's too marginal to be ready for prime time, no one takes him seriously. It's canny of Robbins to make his movie's voice of truth a borderline flake, but Raplin unsettles the movie: while the other actors perform for the "documentary" camera, Esposito seems to be playing "movie" scenes. As a result his speeches sound more didactic than they should. Alan Rickman, as Roberts's shady, CIA-connected campaign manager, also "acts" too much: instead of being his character, he comments on it. A larger credibility problem is the whopper of a fraud that Roberts pulls to ensure his election: even in an era of outrageous deceits, this one seems too farfetched to pull off. Robbins's gutsy directorial debut isn't seamless art, but so what? After a summer in Hollywood fantasyland, at last we have an American movie that rattles our cage-and pokes a sharp spear into the body politic. Now that's entertainment.