When Tim Robbins’ mockumentary Bob Roberts was released in 1992 it was regarded as topical biting political satire, taking jabs at both Democrats and Republicans as well as the media that covers them. The film’s titular character was a hilariously creepy mash-up of Bob Dylan and Gordon Gekko, one that seemed like an extreme character carefully crafted by Robbins to comment on the political climate at the time. George Bush was on his way out of the Presidency making way for Bill Clinton and so Bob Roberts acted as kind of a transition between them.
In retrospect, Robbins was trying to warn us. It’s now 2016 and America is in danger of electing a real-life Bob Roberts in the form of billionaire tycoon Donald Trump. Both men are polarizing figures appealing to disenfranchised white people on a grass roots level that is as fascinating to watch as it is more than a little scary because they tap into an ugly xenophobic streak that lurks in the heart of the country. As a result, Robbins’ film has gradually morphed from mockumentary into documentary.
Bob Roberts chronicles the titular character’s run for Senate in Pennsylvania as documented by Terry Manchester (Brian Murray) and his British film crew. Born to hippie parents, Roberts (Robbins) rebelled as a teen and enrolled in military school, then went to Yale and from there earned a fortune on Wall Street. We get an indication early on of Roberts’ true colors when he clashes with a television talk show host (Lynne Thigpen) on a morning show over the 1960s, which he claims was a “dark stain on American history,” in regards to social protest and the counterculture. Afterwards, she is interviewed by Manchester and says of Roberts, “Here’s a man who has adopted the persona and mindset of the free-thinking rebel and turned it on itself,” which best sums up the aspiring politician.
Roberts is running against incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal) who represents old school politics and is presented in the media as old and stuffy while the former is young and dynamic, appealing to people that are tired of business as usual politics, but this is merely a smoke screen to distract from the fact that he’s just as corrupt as any established politician. He applies the ruthlessness of Wall Street to politics, doing whatever it takes to get the votes needed to win. Paiste points out that Roberts is very good at “the politics of emotion,” and asks, “What’s behind it? I don’t see anybody home. But what I will say that once or twice during the course of our debate I detected a slight whiff of sulfur in the air.” Paiste represents the old guard who tried to make a difference in politics but lost their way and were mired in its byzantine procedures.
The late 1980s and early 1990s was very good to Tim Robbins with a breakout role in Bull Durham (1988) and then going onto being in three Robert Altman films, including The Player (1992), which earned him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. He wisely parlayed the buzz that surrounded him into writing, directing and starring in the low-budget Bob Roberts, which, along with the aforementioned The Player and his next Altman film Short Cuts (1993), saw the actor play a trifecta of unlikeable men abusing their positions of power. Not surprisingly, Bob Roberts is the juiciest role of the three as he gives himself the plum role of a neo-conservative folk singer cum businessman with aspirations to the Senate. Robbins portrays Roberts as a man that plays it close to the vest, revealing little about himself or what he truly believes in front of the cameras and is content to spout soundbite rhetoric. There is an icy, smiling façade that Roberts chillingly maintains throughout the film like a shark about to attack.
Ray Wise and Alan Rickman play Roberts’ campaign chairman and manager respectively with the former always upbeat and positive; grinning for the cameras while the latter is enigmatic and stern only to be later embroiled in an Oliver North/Contragate-type scandal. A young Jack Black pops up (in his feature film debut) as a particularly zealous fan of Roberts and the actor memorably conveys the scary devotion of the aspiring politician’s most rabid supporters.
Giancarlo Esposito plays John Alijah “Bugs” Raplin, a fast-talking, muckraking journalist who writes for underground publications and persistently attempts to get an interview with Roberts. His goal is to dig up evidence of the campaign chairman’s shady dealings and thereby implicating Roberts. Esposito does a fantastic job of treading a fine line of conspiracy theorist who is doing the kind of relentless legwork that mainstream publications used to do but that have by and large been co-opted by corporations. Bugs represents the film’s angry voice as he rails against the “dealmakers” that pass for politicians.
The amusing riffs on Roberts’ Dylan-esque musical career include album covers that rip-off the legendary folk singer’s and a music video for a song called “Wall Street Rap” that copies the famous one for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with female dancers in the background that references the supermodel band that appeared in Robert Palmer’s iconic video for “Addicted to Love.” One of the film’s highpoints are the songs that Roberts performs throughout. They are hilarious in their naked, ultra-conservative sloganeering with such song titles as “Times Are Changin’ Back”, “Retake America”, and “Drugs Stink.” The lyrics to these songs skewer conservatives’ hatred of anything the reeks of socialism as “Complain” demonstrates:
“I don’t have a house. I don’t have a car.
I spend all my money getting drunk in a bar.
I wanna be rich. I don’t have a brain.
Just give me a handout while I complain.”
These songs flip the traditional protest song on its head so that it is the conservatives that rail against liberalism. With the possibility of these songs played straight and their lyrics taken out of their satirical context, it is easy to see why Robbins has never released the soundtrack. Can you imagine what Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio would do with them? Robbins felt that they were “funny” and “entertaining,” but out of context: “I don’t trust the songs. And I personally don’t want to be driving in my car five years from now and hear that bile on the radio.”
Robbins’ film also critiques the media, in particular local news stations, which he satirizes by casting well-known actors like Helen Hunt, James Spader, Fred Ward, and Peter Gallagher among others in cameos as sycophantic newscasters blatantly sympathetic to Roberts. Gallagher, in particular, is funny as a more obvious suck-up who pathetically waves after Roberts even after the man has left the room. The film suggests that these vapid T.V. personalities hitch themselves to Roberts’ gravy train because they can sense that he will be the next big thing but are quick to turn on him at the first hint of a serious scandal.
Stylistically, Bob Roberts is reminiscent of the heavy metal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984) – at one point Roberts gets lost in an auditorium trying to find the stage – and the Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) – it adopts a similar cinema verite approach – with a dash of Robert Altman’s Tanner ’88 (1988) for good measure. Robbins mixes them all together to create a funny and smart satire that takes aim at American politics and the media that covers it. The film also critiques the tactics of campaigning and how it consists mostly of ugly mudslinging, which, unfortunately, has only gotten worse. This makes Bob Roberts just as relevant today as it was back in 1992 – in fact, maybe even more so with the rise of Donald Trump and his fellow Republican nominees of which we can see more than a little of Roberts in the agenda and rhetoric of Cruz, Rubio, et al.
Watching Bob Roberts recently, and in light of Trump’s run for the Republican Party nomination, it is eerie how Robbins’ film anticipates things that actually have happened in real-life. Like the violence that has erupted at recent Trump rallies, we see a group of dissenters beaten up by security at one of Roberts’ rallies that masquerade as concerts. Much like some of Trump’s more enthusiastic supporters, we see Roberts’ fanatical supporters mix it up with the protesters outside a venue after a concert. Most interestingly, Roberts appears on Cutting Edge Live, a Saturday Night Live-type hip sketch comedy show, as its musical guest. Robbins’ long-time friend and fellow actor John Cusack makes a cameo appearance as the host who openly shows disdain for Roberts, which anticipated the protests of several Hispanic organizations against Trump hosting SNL in November 2015. Like Trump, Roberts uses bullying tactics and fascist imagery, which seemed extreme in 1992 but are commonplace now.
The origins for Bob Roberts came from Tim Robbins’ dismay at returning home to Greenwich Village after being away for eight years and finding that many artists and bohemian types had left only to be replaced by a lot of franchises. “I started thinking about what would happen if all of those businessmen picked up guitars.” Initially, he wrote Roberts as a businessman folk singer and over time his ambitions for the character grew until he had him entering politics. The impetus for the film was Robbins’ interest in “the Hollywoodization of Washington, in the complicity between the media and politics and entertainment and how politics is becoming about image and not substance.”
He began writing the screenplay in 1986 and in the same year tried out the character on a sketch he made for Saturday Night Live. Robbins then spent the next few years trying to get it made as a feature film but the political content scared off the studios in Hollywood and most potential financial backers. The few independent producers that showed interest wanted him to “make it a parody of satire, if you can believe that,” Robbins said. In retrospect, he realized that the script wasn’t ready until two years before actual filming took place. His increased clout as recognizable actor finally convinced Working Title Films, a small British independent film company, to provide the $4 million budget, which meant that all the actors, including the likes of Alan Rickman, worked for scale.
After Bob Roberts received a very positive reaction at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, Miramax and Paramount Studios picked it up for distribution and decided to release the film on Labor Day weekend to coincide with the upcoming election with a modest advertising campaign in cities they felt it would play well. Certain political reporters and media figures in New York, like ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and John McLaughlin, host of the T.V. political show The McLaughlin Group, were courted by the distributors at a special screening during the Democratic National Convention to generate favorable buzz. In addition, influential publications like Vanity Fair were shown an early cut of the film.
Bob Roberts received mostly positive notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “I like its audacity, its freedom to say the obvious things about how our political process has been debased – but if it had been only about campaign tactics and techniques, I would have liked it more.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “There’s big imagination at work here. The movie sometimes overstates its case, but the music-making, success-oriented Bob represents an authentic American political tradition.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Alan Rickman is magnificently malignant as Robbins’ crypto-fascist right-hand man; his face is a frenzy of twitching tics…Also on the money are the three neoconservative high schoolers who tail Bob everywhere, a collective psycho-glint in their eyes. But Candidate Bob takes the cake, his deer-in-the-headlights gaze trained on his own morning America.”
In his review for The Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Audacious, bracing, uncommonly timely, Bob Roberts would seem almost impossible to pull off. So it is every much to Robbins’ credit as a filmmaker that he manages to do so while rarely getting preachy and never neglecting the importance of movement and excitement in keeping an audience involved.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “The functioning of media itself is Robbins’s true subject, and it’s exciting to see him appropriating some of the ideas of his mentor Robert Altman and giving them more bite than Altman ever has.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “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.” When asked about the film in 2016, Robbins said, “What I was doing with that movie was [trying] to shed a light on some of the hypocrisies that exist in the American political system and the way the media covers politics, and unfortunately that is still relevant and that movie still works today.”
In retrospect, Bob Roberts anticipates what the Republican Party has become. In this respect, it is more than a bit spooky that we are now seeing a fictional character like Roberts being brought to life by actual people without a hint of irony or self-awareness. If Robbins’ film was intended as a warning then it went largely unheeded as history, albeit fictional, is repeating itself only instead of art imitating life, life is imitating art.
Bibbani, William. “Tim Robbins on A Perfect Day and Howard the Duck.” Crave Online. January 12, 2016.
Galbraith, Jane. “The Bob Thing: Bob Roberts Seeks ‘Smart, Hip’ Filmgoers Who’ll Vote with their Wallets.” Los Angeles Times. August 30, 1992.
Kloman, Harry. “Tim Robbins, Running Hard.” The New York Times. January 12, 1993.
Murphy, Ryan. “Tim Robbins is Hot – He’s Also Bothered in Bob Roberts, the Film Satire He Wrote, Directed and Stars In, the Actor-Activist Puts His Political Convictions on Display.” Philadelphia Inquirer. September 13, 1992.
Roberge, Chris. “Tim Robbins Campaigns for Bob Roberts and Political Change.” The Tech. September 25, 1992.
Turan, Kenneth. “A Calculated Crapshoot Pays Off for Tim Robbins.” Los Angeles Times. May 13, 1992.