A man in a suit stands at a microphone holding a guitar. “Drugs stink,” he sings, accompanied by a well-dressed woman providing harmony. The music is the kind of thing you’d hear on A Prairie Home Companion–old-timey Americana. The lyrics are something entirely different:
…They make me sick.
Those that sell ’em
and those that do ’em.
String ’em up
from the highest tree
without a trace of sympathy…
A crowd cheers wildly, some swaying to the music, others singing along. The song barrels ahead, threatening “pot-headed weirdos” and “sex deviants,” encouraging the listener to “be a clean-living man with a rope in your hand,” to “hang ’em high for a clean living land.” You wonder if they can hear beyond the charming melody, if the crowd is too busy clapping in rhythm to ponder just what it is they’re applauding.
The man is Bob Roberts, a Wall Street whiz running for a Pennsylvania Senate seat as a folk-singing populist. His music is a right-wing corrective to the perceived excesses of the 1960s. Indeed, Roberts has released an album of folk music called The Times Are Changing Back. He smiles and glad-hands and spouts meaningless platitudes. He’s all surface.
In other words, he’s a perfect candidate.
In Tim Robbins’ prescient 1992 satire Bob Roberts (which he wrote, directed, starred in, and co-wrote songs for), the United States is on the brink of war with Iraq in the aftermath of their 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Many Americans, including Roberts’ opponent, Senator Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal), have their doubts on the war. Roberts expresses no real opinion on the conflict, offering only vague sentiments about supporting the president and loving his country.
The film is shot in a faux-documentary style, following British reporter Terry Manchester (Brian Murray) as he tags along with the Roberts campaign. Unlike a lot of the “mockumentary” sub-genre, this choice serves the material as more than simple presentation. As an audience, we share Manchester’s slow awakening to what Bob really represents: the co-option of populist ideals for the benefit of the über-wealthy.
Bob is a self-righteous hypocrite, an anti-drug crusader whose campaign chairman (Alan Rickman), once trafficked in drugs as a way to support the Contras in Nicaragua. He attacks his opponent using sleazy innuendo and implication, defeating an experienced and thoughtful man by any means necessary.
In counterpoint to Bob, we have Bugs (Giancarlo Esposito), a small-time reporter doing actual investigative work while journalists with more access and a larger audience mostly offer fluff pieces and idiotic commentary. (At one point, Roberts responds to criticism by sneering that “the Sixties are over.” A chuckling news anchor adds, “I couldn’t agree more.”) He is abrasive and unkempt, Jeremiah accosting the king with unwanted truths.
Senator Paiste is a man of substance, an old-school liberal whose policies are actually focused on helping the lower classes Roberts courts through superficial pandering. But this is America in the age of the sound bite and the attack ad. Detailed policy analysis doesn’t win as many votes as ginned-up outrage. Presentation trumps quality. Paiste recognizes his opponent for the intentionally empty suit he is, but his intellectual appeals are impotent in the face of slick music videos and racial dog whistles.
To supporters (including a very young Jack Black, in his film debut), Bob is a man of God, a righteous force to push back against the supposed immorality of the turbulent Vietnam era. Roberts plays this up, singing about “dirty hippie freaks” and criticizing the separation of church and state. These ploys are obvious red meat for the rubes, but no one (Bugs and Paiste aside) notices. In one of the funniest moments in the film, Rickman angrily denies drug-smuggling allegations when questioned by reporters, then escapes by snarling, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pray.”
Looking back on the film with two decades of hindsight, I found it startling just how current it feels. In the wake of the nominally grass-roots tea party movement–a real-life populist uprising backed heavily by billionaires but fronted by slick, under-informed politicians like Michele Bachmann and Marco Rubio who are sure to highlight their rags-to-riches stories while whipping up resentment against the poor–Robbins’ commentary feels vital.
Robbins is a well-known leftist, but his film is not a commercial for Democrsts. Bob Roberts arrived in theaters in 1992, the same year Bill Clinton–another charismatic up-from-poverty candidate–won the presidency. Clinton, too, feels like Bob in retrospect. He was a smooth talker whose policies (like repealing decades-old financial regulations) favored Wall Street and played on prejudice. Behind the folksy veneer of the Man from Hope were connections to shady financiers and savings-and-loan manipulation. The corruption is not limited to one side of the aisle; it’s systemic.
The film closes with Roberts–who has won his election through a faked assassination attempt–arriving in Washington at the same moment the United States prepares Operation Desert Storm. Bugs, the troublesome investigative reporter, has been killed by a right-wing “patriot.” A newscast notes that popular opinion regarding the war has shifted dramatically to favor the coming war. Style has triumphed over substance. Real journalism is dead. The wolves are circling, their sheep costumes laughably obvious but somehow passing for the real thing.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pray.
Next up from Jesse:. Another Year
And from me:. Romance & Cigarettes