Political satire doesn’t get any more topical than Bob Roberts. Written and directed by its star, Tim Robbins, this nose-thumbing mock documentary is so prescient, so astonishingly up-to-the-minute, it creates the eerie effect of having been ripped from tomorrow’s headlines.
Bob Roberts (Robbins) is a 35-year-old senatorial candidate from Pennsylvania who also happens to be a millionaire, a right-wing demagogue, and a Dylanesque protest singer. Between speeches (and impromptu fencing matches), he strums reactionary ditties like ”Times Are Changin’ Back” and ”Drugs Stink.” Tall, smooth-skinned, and immaculately groomed, Roberts is so creepily telegenic he might have been spawned in a cathode-ray tube.
It doesn’t take us long to get the joke: That Bob the folksinging yuppie fascist is all image — and so he can yoke together whatever images he wants. He’s a cutthroat posing as a populist, a monster with a baby face. He’s like some of the young Wall Street types who make a fetish out of couching go-go capitalism in the language of rebellion. The difference is that Bob is running for office. His success is based on the appeal of his reactionary message (in speeches he rails against ”the usual things — Congress, liberals, Iraq”), but also on the fact that, like David Duke, Ross Perot, and, most spectacularly, Ronald Reagan, he has packaged himself as a media-age Wizard of Oz — a ”concerned” TV hologram.
Directing for the first time, Robbins captures the dizzying surface — and grisly underbelly — of American televisual politics. He gets the details just right: the reporters who keep tailing Bob Roberts as if something terribly important were going on; the crowds and their carefully orchestrated frenzy; the chatty local newscasters who’ve learned to drop wisecracks to the rhythm of sound bites. There’s an opposing candidate, Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal), a bow-tie Democrat who makes windy, left-leaning pronouncements about the state of power in America (for all of Vidal’s weary pomposity, the movie essentially endorses what Paiste has to say). The film also features a dense network of topical references-the gulf war, the S&L crisis-as well as echoes of past political events, such as the attempted assassination of George Wallace. In at least one instance, Robbins shows something like telepathy: When Bob Roberts performs on the late-night comedy show Cutting Edge Live, the scene anticipates Bill Clinton’s Arsenio gig (the movie was shot late last year). Forget infotainment — Robbins has captured the disorienting spectacle of poli-tainment.
For all that, there’s a serious limitation to Bob Roberts. Despite its cleverness, the movie isn’t really very funny; it’s repetitive and a tad monotonous. And that failure, I think, is tied to a certain smugness at its core. Satire, even at its most merciless, is powered by the comic rush of discovery — by a sense that the satirist is constantly finding new wrinkles in his subject. It’s this quality that made the mock rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap so exhilarating. Just about every scene in that inspired parody ridiculed the stuporous narcissism of the band members. Yet the actors inhabited their heavy-metal alter egos with such affectionate gusto that the characters quickly took on a warped life of their own.
Bob Roberts, on the other hand, is just a blank slate, an oily placard. The character is used didactically: He’s so transparently corrupt — at least, to the audience — that there are no layers to his corruption. We know him completely after 30 seconds. And so the film already seems to have made up its mind about everything it’s showing us.
In the one sequence that just about crackles with comic electricity, Roberts shows up for a rehearsal of Cutting Edge Live. His squabble with an outraged liberal cast member (John Cusack) is hilarious; they’re matching poseurs, dueling egomaniacs pretending to care about politics. It’s telling, though, that this is just about the only scene in Bob Roberts that does make fun of liberals. When a pivotal character (Giancarlo Esposito) starts preaching to the camera about governmental conspiracies, the film takes a heavy-handed leftist detour into Oliver Stone Land. Robbins, having parodied the phony surface of politics, now reveals the ”truth” below. In doing so, he fails to grasp the deftness of his own satirical instincts. He doesn’t seem to realize that though the right wing (via Reagan) may have perfected the politics of image, by now it’s everyone’s game.