Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty-Seven

Top5090s47

#47 — Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins, 1992)
I wonder if Tim Robbins ever surveys the current political landscape, and starts pondering the possibilities for Bob Roberts II. Probably not, though he must stand agape before news reports of Tea Party conventions and apoplectic town hall meetings and whatever fresh lunacy occupies Sarah Palin, somewhat stunned that his nightmare vision of a right wing celebrity bending a susceptible voting populace to his nefarious whims has not come true, but has in fact been eclipsed. Robbins envisioned how easily populist sentiment could be turned to ironically support the strongest factions of the power structure, but there is only a glimmer of the vehemence that would accompany such corrupted thought. Similarly, Robbins slyly, astutely depicts a media complicit in the candidate’s deceptive messages, but couldn’t reasonably anticipate the corrosive partnership gleefully fulfilled by Fox News, which has as much to do with “news” as MTV does with “music.” Robbins’ film is depressingly prescient and yet, when held up against the world to come, strangely quaint, even naive.

Forgiving its shortcomings in prognostication, Bob Roberts remains a scathing, fearless, wildly intelligent and subtly ingenious comedy, using the Senate campaign of a right wing folk singer to throw jabs an the entirety of American political culture. It is structured as a documentary examination of Bob Roberts, trailing him with cameras as he engages in a bus tour across Pennsylvania and exploits a public too easily distracted from meaningful issues by salacious rumor. Too often, the “mockumentary” style is employed as a shortcut, getting exposition out of the way while loosening narrative structure to better fit in the gags without the fussiness of proper story development. Instead, Robbins thinks about what a documentary about this man would look like, what it might uncover and how it might do it. There are no cheats. The film looks and feels like nonfiction, and the most damning revelations–a temper tantrum, a glum campaign worker who turns on his megawatt smile like a breaker going off, an idly tapping foot–come across as accidental, the lucky happenstance that occurs when a smart documentary filmmaker keep the camera rolling. It’s all orchestrated, of course, but Robbins adheres to the parameters of his conceit effectively enough to make it seem brutally, cruelly real.

Robbins also stars as the title character, and it’s one of his finest acting moments. There was enough of a sameness to his roles at this point in his career that a magazine article surveying his various performances was headlined “Tim, Tim, Nice But Dim.” Robbins tapped into some of that genial simplicity in this performance–that quality goes a long way towards explaining Roberts’ appeal as a candidate–but it is laced with a something darker and trickier, a deeply embedded villainy that mostly comes through his eyes. It’s a glinting menace that transforms his cherubic smile into a dangerous leer. It’s easy to imagine that grin concealing fangs.

The film ends with one word emblazoned across the screen in giant letters: VOTE. It’s a plea, a mantra, a warning. One of the greatest values of Bob Roberts is that it persuasively makes the argument for the importance of that simple act.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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