Red Alert

It's always a shock to run into a Hollywood movie with a sense of history, much less one as ambitious as Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock." Perhaps inspired by the mural Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) commissioned from Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) for Rockefeller Center, Robbins has mounted a swirling mural of his own, attempting to capture the political and artistic fever of New York in the mid-'30s. Here are Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen), producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and composer Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) mounting their Federal Theatre production of the political musical "The Cradle Will Rock," when it is suddenly shut down by the government on the eve of production. Here are socialist Rivera and millionaire Rockefeller fighting over control of that doomed mural (never mind that this took place three years earlier). Here are a Jewish Mussolini sympathizer (Susan Sarandon) trying to raise money for Il Duce from rich industrialists, a fake countess with bohemian urges (Vanessa Redgrave) and a self-righteous informant (Joan Cusack) betraying her co-workers to the committee investigating anti-American activities in the WPA.

Mixing fictional characters (a bitter ventriloquist played by Bill Murray) with broad, controversial portraits of real people (Welles is a drunken blowhard here), Robbins eschews leftist diatribes for a bold cartoon version of history. It's as crowded and energetic as a big parade--and just about as subtle.