When the Tea Party movement was being formed following Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if its founders hadn’t gotten some twisted inspiration from Bob Roberts.
Although 20 years old, Tim Robbins’ scaborously satirical mock-umentary is arguably more prescient now than it was when it was released shortly before the 1992 election involving Bill Clinton and George Bush.
The themes explored in Bob Roberts are, alas, all too pertinent to what has played out before our eyes in each and every political race, where the politics of personality, fear, image and ignorance take precedence over reality and the issues that should really matter to the electorate.
The film follows the campaign of Repubican senatorial hopeful Bob Roberts, a folk-singing self-made millionaire-turned “man of the people” and “leader of a generation”, according to his fanatical band of acolytes (including a young Jack Black in his feature debut as a Hitler youth-alike).
Roberts and his campaign team use a sympathetic media machine to push his rabidly right-wing agenda at the expense of the principled Democratic incumbent Senator Brickley Paiste (the late Gore Vidal), who “doesn’t see anybody at home” when looking into his opponent’s soul, but is unprepared for his opponent and, when tainted by a fabricated sex scandal naively proclaims that “this is America. Virtue always prevails”.
Roberts is hounded by an investigative reporter, Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), who pertains to have evidence that the senatorial hopeful and his campaign chairman Lukas Hart (Alan Rickman) are involved in crooked deals and drugs despite peddling an anti-drugs message as part of his campaign.
As election day draws near, a seemingly tragic incident dramatically alters the public mood, but is everything as it appears?
Although there can be little doubt as to which side of the political fence Robbins sits, the vitriol of Bob Roberts is aimed more squarely at the political system as a whole. When the system is little more than the mouthpiece of big money and lobbyists, Robbins appears to argue, then it’s hardly surprising a figure as rotten as Roberts could rise up Omen-style from its darkest recesses.
The iconography of the 60s runs through the film like a stick of rock, most notably the work of Bob Dylan. While Robbins clearly seems to pine for the ideals of that lost decade, he is shrewd enough to observe how what’s ‘cool’ from the 60s has been perverted and monetised by the morally and intellectually bankrupt, such as Roberts, for personal gain.
While declaring that “the 60s are, let’s face it, a dark stain on American history” during an interview on a morning chat show, Roberts churns out hate-filled folk records with such Dylan-aping titles as “The Freewheelin’ Bob Roberts”, “Times Are Changin’ Back” and “Bob on Bob”. He even reinvents Dylan’s iconic video to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as “The Wall Street Rap”, his paean to the pursuit of money.
Robbins takes the Dylan reference further by adopting the same verite-style of the classic 1967 documentary about the singer Don’t Look Back, while in one scene Roberts, who rides ahead of his campaign bus on a motorbike, falls off, aping a similar incident suffered by the folk legend in 1966.
The corporatisation of politics and its leaders is hardly a new phenomenon, but Robbins turns it all the way up to 11 here. When his campaign staff aren’t manning the phones pushing Roberts the politician from the confines of their battle bus, they’re pushing Roberts the businessman by trading stocks and shares.
While Robbins can get bogged down hammering home the point that politics and society at large has regressed from the idealism of the 60s to a more reactionary, less tolerant state, his debut film has become ever more pertinent and timely over the years. His portrayal of a media machine that wallows in trivia and allows subjectivity to superseed objectivty foretells the world of 24-hour rolling news and the likes of Fox News. Robbins also attacks the deliberate erosion of the divide between church and state, something that has now become de rigueur in politics since George W Bush and the advent of the Tea Party.
Robbins exudes an oily charisma as the titular firebrand, capturing the dead-eyed smile we’ve seen from so many politicians. Equally great is Rickman as the not-quite-human Hart and Ray Wise as Roberts’ svengali-esque campaign manager Chet MacGregor.
Bob Roberts is a bold, frightening and blackly satirical warning to a sleepwalking nation of the power of style over substance and the sobering observation that you often get the leaders you deserve.