As next Tuesday’s Election Day approaches and thoughts turn to campaign politics, you might be inclined to check out an election-themed movie. There are so many, from Robert Redford’s “The Candidate” (1972) to the recent Robin Williams film, “The Man of the Year.” Yet, for my money, the best film about a political campaign is 1992’s “Bob Roberts.”
This mocumentary written, directed by, and starring Tim Robbins follows fictional Senatorial candidate Bob Roberts as he crisscrosses the state of Pennsylvania during the fall of 1990. Roberts is an ultra-conservative folk singer turned Wall Street millionaire turned Republican candidate who is being helped by a team of shady, morally-corrupt image-makers played by Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, and Rebecca Jenkins, among others. They travel in a high-tech, computer-connected bus which doubles as a market trading room on wheels (reminding us that despite all the ideological rhetoric, it’s really about money). On the campaign trail, Roberts sings songs that mock the Sixties-style folk music of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, and tells voters what they want to hear, even if it’s all a pack of lies. This theme is reinforced by the historical background—for those who remember the fall of 1990, the nation hotly debated the question of going to war with Iraq just prior to the First Gulf War. (In an eerie echo of the present, we here the first Bush administration arguing that Saddam Hussein probably has nuclear weapons.)
Our anti-hero, Bob Roberts, has two main foes; the first is the incumbent Democratic senator Brickely Paiste (Gore Vidal—yes, the famous writer in one of very few acting roles) who, in interviews with the documentarian, provides the real political framework for the film. The other is an industrious investigative-reporter named Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) who manages to unearth some of the shady business deals Roberts has been involved in, including drug-running as part of the Iran-Contra scandal.
There are also a number of stars in much smaller and cameo roles. They include (but are not limited to) Bob Balaban, Lynne Thigpen, Jack Black, David Strathairn, John Cusack, James Spader, Susan Sarandon, Helen Hunt, Fisher Stevens, and Peter Gallagher. All do excellent jobs, most especially those who play shallow local-TV anchors who make jokes about the homeless.
Excellently edited, as if it were a real documentary, the story unfolds masterfully. The more we get to know Bob and the more we dislike him, the more we come to despise the political system and the Machiavellian tools used by the Roberts campaign to manipulate it. This by-any-means-necessary tactic reaches a climax when Bob goes to New York to appear on the “Cutting Edge Live” TV show (a fictionalized version of “Saturday Night Live”).
In 1992, this film was considered a satire and had many funny jokes. They were laughable because they were a slight exaggeration of the conservative politics of the time. Unfortunately, the jokes don’t seem so funny anymore, in the wake of our own more-ridiculous time. For example, a joke about election fraud elicited huge laughs in 1992 because as deceitful as Roberts was, no one thought he’d really stoop that low. Today, however, where there have been serious scandals over fraud in the last two Presidential elections, that joke just doesn’t work. In another scene, when a liberal offers some serious and substantial criticism of Roberts’ views, he retorts, “Are you a Communist?” Again, that got big laughs in 1992, but today, if he had said “terrorist” instead of “Communist,” he’d sound just like so many real politicians who rebut by seriously accusing their opponents of siding with terrorists.
So although some of the jokes seem to come from the era of the first Bush, that doesn’t mean the film has aged poorly. Quite the contrary; it’s even more relevant today. What seemed to be satire in 1992, in hindsight now appears to be prediction.
If you want to believe in the goodness, purity, sincerity, and selflessness of politicians, then this movie is not for you. If, on the other hand, you’d like to see Hollywood’s closest reflection of real-world politics and politicians, this is something to definitely check out.
And if you absolutely must vote on Tuesday, remember to hold your nose.
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