Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Friday: Bob Roberts (1992)

In the spirit of the upcoming election, I thought I’d do something you never thought I would. . . I’m going to recommend a movie written by, staring, and directed by Tim Robbins. This is another one of those richly ironic films where an über-leftist tries to expose the “evil right wing” and ends up exposing his own side. It’s also a very entertaining film.

** spoiler alert **

Bob Roberts is the fictional story of Bob Roberts, a candidate for the United States Senate in Pennsylvania. It’s told in a documentary style, but remains very film-quality. Roberts (Tim Robbins) and his mysterious campaign manager (Alan Rickman) manipulate the press, slander their opponent, enter into shady deals, encourage cult-like followers, and dodge an obsessed “journalist” (Giancarlo Esposito) who investigates the truth about Roberts’ mysterious dealings. That truth appears to be that Roberts is a Manchurian candidate of military contractors and the C.I.A., who are secretly funding his campaign. And no dirty trick is too low for this campaign.

So why in the world would I recommend this film? Well, for one thing, it really is quite a good film. It’s well shot, well paced, and all around entertaining. For another, the film boomerangs on its leftist intent. Here are some examples:

First, while Roberts is the evil right winger cliché that haunts the dreams of leftists like Robbins, Roberts actually comes across as one of those likeable villains you find yourself cheering on -- just like the generation of kids who wanted to be Gordon Gekko after Wall Street. It's hard not to like Roberts because he's friendly, witty, and is unfairly put upon by the other side. For example, Roberts keeps saying things like: “stay off crack. . . it’s a ghetto drug.” If you understand the anguish the left has regarding the disparity between how cocaine and crack are sentenced, and how they blame that disparity on racism, then you’re supposed to see this statement as evidence of racism and you’re supposed to be appalled. But that's too deep in the pond of leftist paranoia for most people and anyone not steeped in hard-left victimology will simply see this line as funny and/or absurd.

Secondly, the folk music is great. Roberts is a folk singer and he uses his music as part of his campaign. The music is intended to be pure satire, as Roberts sings lines like “be a clean living man with a rope in your hand” (implying you should act like a vigilante). But most people will find themselves having a high degree of sympathy with the lyrics of his songs. In fact, Robbins became so concerned about this that he refused to release the soundtrack for fear that Republican candidates would start using his songs -- just as Ronald Reagan turned Bruce Springsteen’s anti-American rant “Born in the USA” into a pro-American anthem.

Third, this film highlights the nastiest side of liberalism in the most unflattering ways. For example, in one scene, it shows the intolerance of liberals when Roberts appears on a fake Saturday Night Live show (the parody of SNL is actually spot on, with poorly-written unfunny scripts, bad acting, and mindless characters). The actors (including John Cusack) throw tantrums about Roberts showing up, treat him rudely, and finally try to sabotage the show to deny him any publicity. While Robbins no doubt thought the audience would see these characters as noble for standing up to power, they actually come across as mean, petty, and intolerant. . . exactly the kind of vile, intolerant, hateful types we've seen parading through Hollywood for years now. Moreover, their hate is made impotent in the film because nothing they try seems to be able to stop Bob.

Fourth, this film is rich in irony. While Robbins means this film as an indictment of the American right, the things he accuses the right of doing are all out of the playbook of the left. For example, it is hilarious to see Robbins complain about secret military funding of right-wing Bob, when the past 20 years have shown that liberals are the creatures of big business, the military industrial complex, and foreign money. He accuses right-wing Bob of planting a fake sex scandal to embarrass his opponent, something Democrats specialize in (like all the October surprises, e.g. the fake Bush Sr. affair, CBS making up Bush Jr.'s military record, etc.). It’s also hilarious to see a brainwashed cult-like group of followers (including a young Jack Black) begin following Bob around, when the only thing approaching this in real politics has been the legion of Kool-Aid drunk liberals that wept whenever Obama spoke.

In some ways, this film is also quite prescient. For example, it foretells the much nastier style of campaigning that has become a Democratic specialty -- secret dirty money, image over substance, a hard-left flank that tries to suppress its opponents by any means including violence, faked scandals, loads of hate, etc. It also foretells the shift from a mainstream media to a more fringe media. In fact, Bugs Raplin (Esposito), the crazed journalist, is a lot like the paranoid weirdoes who would soon begin to inhabit places like Huffington Post, where they too complain that the MSM won’t cover the "real" truth because they’re beholden to secret corporate interests.

At first blush, this film sounds like something you wouldn’t want to see if you’re not a flaming leftist, but it really is worth watching. Robbins’ attempt to slander the right backfires in almost every scene and his story telling ability is undeniable. The story has clever twists and turns, the acting is perfect, and the characters are likeable. Moreover, unlike most leftist films, this one doesn’t preach because it assumes that you will pick up the meaning from the words and deeds and motivations of the characters, and that you will naturally agree with Robbins. . . hence, no need to preach.

Sadly for Robbins, he never realized that the window he thought was letting him peer down into the dark side of conservatives was actually a mirror. Good for us though.

Check out the new film site -- CommentaramaFilms!


CrispyRice said...

This too funny, Andrew! I was just thinking about re-watching this movie. I have seen it several times and really enjoy it, too. You've very much pegged it.

I will say that I generally don't pick up anything with Tim Robbins in it now-a-days, but I saw this back in the day when I either didn't know better or he wasn't as openly flaming of a lib as he is now.

I feel somehow like I should eschew it now, but, dog-gone-it, I just can't. It leaves me humming every time.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I think a lot of people are in the same boat now: no longer willing to see Robbins movies.

But this was from the days before he became such an ass and was still turning out good films (Hudsucker Proxy and Bull Durham and Shawshank). And I think this one is worth seeing, especially if you at all like either irony or politics. Plus, I really like Alan Rickman and he does a great job in this.

And you're right about some of the music, you do find yourself humming some of his song for a few days afterwards! I think Robbin's fears about Republican using his songs was a very real fear -- I could easily see these songs making it into campaigns!

CrispyRice said...

I love the Hudsucker Proxy! "You know... for kids!!"

Yes, I really used to like Tim Robbins. It's a shame.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, I saw Hudsucker on video and I knew people who kept using that line... "you know... for kids." And I had no idea what they were talking about. I laughed so hard when I saw him say it in the movie!

Yeah, it's too bad he's made himself so unpleasant, because I've always liked him on film.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Great review Andrew. I will have to check out this movie again. And yes, sadly, I too avoid anything Robbins does going forward (just like Sean Penn.) And I love it when these guys try to engineer a liberal message in their films and it subsequently fails miserably. Just make a movie that's entertaining and fun, and watch people flock to see it.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Pitts! Ditto on Penn. I like a lot of what he did up until he turned political. Now I can't even stand to look at the guy.

On the point about liberal messages backfiring, e.g. Wall Street, I'm actually putting together a list of films where the liberal message backfired. I figure that might make an interesting article -- though I'm still short of films to round out the list.

Unknown said...

Andrew: I'll have to try watching it again. I couldn't get through it even once. I obviously missed something.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Give it another shot, the irony is hilarious.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this film but I'm pretty sure it's on my Netflix queue. The Simpsons even did an episode titled "Sideshow Bob Roberts" where Sideshow Bob runs for office (supported by Birch Barlow, Springfield's version of Rush Limbaugh).

Re: The Hudsucker Proxy, for some reason it's one of the only Coen Bros. movies I enjoy (the other being Raising Arizona). I especially love one of Jennifer Jason Leigh's lines:

"Only a fool thinks he knows things about things he knows nothing about!"

Now for the elephant (donkey?) in the room: the military-industrial complex. I realize it's fodder for another article but in what way are the Dems connected to it (in a way that the Republicans are not)?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's well worth seeing. I think you'll like it. Come back and give us your impressions as an independent when you see it!

I recall that Simpson's episode, that was a good one! I liked all the Sideshow Bob episodes. I love the line where he was before the parole board and he has "Die Bart Die") written on his chest and he claims it's German, and the parole board person says: "No one who speaks German could be an evil person!"

I find Coen Brothers films to be too uneven. Some parts are great, others just fall flat. And I think Hudsucker is their best. I was totally unimpressed with No Country For Old Men.

In terms of the military industrial complex, sorry, I didn't mean to imply that Republicans aren't taking money from defense contractors -- they are.

BUT, for decades now, the left has played this game of pretending that Republicans are somehow puppets of the military (which I don't see any evidence for) and that their hands are clean. That's a total lie. Democrats get just as much money (often more) from that very same MIC, Democratic Congresses have a much worse record than Republican ones of forcing weapons systems on the Pentagon over the military's objections, and Democrats are caught (much more often than Republicans) taking bribes from DOD people. . . as was the recent case with Democrats Jim Moran, Peter Visclosky, and John Murtha, who were caught taking $380,000 in illegal campaign contributions from that very MIC that they try to make part of some Republican conspiracy machine.

I absolutely think the system is corrupt and bad for the country, but only the Democrats are pretending that their hands are clean when they are just as dirty or more so that Republicans (ditto on Wall Street money).

Anonymous said...

I see the film is available on Netflix Instant Play so I'll check it out this weekend - just check back on this thread in a day or two.

As for the Coens, I agree. I haven't seen No Country... but a friend of mine saw it and hated it.

I also love that German line, from the "Cape Feare" episode with the infamous rake scene (which was done only because the episode was running short and they needed to fill 30 seconds).

"It stands for The Bart, The!"

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Don't worry, I always check back! :-)

Yeah, that's the line that led to the "no one who speaks German..." line. I really used to like The Simpsons, but I haven't watched them in years now.

No Country tried very hard to be something slightly unusual and just ended up being boring and pointless. There are a lot of scenes where the characters just try to look contemplative in the hopes that we think there's a lot going on -- it made me think the director was having a joke on the audience. The plot itself is about as simple and seen-a-million-times as possible. The execution wasn't particularly interesting, and moments in the film made no sense. It wasn't good.

Joel Farnham said...


This reminds me of Wag the Dog. Another election movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I suspect the intent is similar, but Wag the Dog was a lot flatter. Wag seemed like a movie that wanted to be biting, but was afraid to offend it's subjects and didn't want to upset the Clintons (who were in power at the point). Bob Roberts was much more pointed and doesn't really spare anyone.

Bob Roberts is probably closer to Primary Colors though it has more fantasy elements, meaning it's more extreme with stranger events (like a shooting).

Tennessee Jed said...

It had been so long since I had seen this, but I must say you got something out of it that I either missed or forgot. Unfortunately, I have been so beat down over the years by Hollywood's liberalism, I really am losing my enthusiasm.

I feel like Jesse Jackson with that quote that was trotted out yesterday with the Juan Williams storyline. It goes something like "one of the most painful things for me remains" . . . (and he goes onto admit he is relieved if the footsteps on the street turns out to be a white man.) In other words, I have always loved movies and tried to not let a person's off screen behavior influence how I feel about their work.

BUT IT IS A BATTLE I'M SLOWLY LOSING. It's painful to admit, and I know it's wrong, but I am so disgusted by the whole lot of them, I hate to put money in their pocket. I feel like I'm indirectly contributing to Obama and the Socialist Democrat Labor Party's slush fund. So much as I appreciate your fresh and interesting point of view on the film, It seems unlikely I'll revisit it. My paternal grandfather use to give my brother and myself all his Roosevelt dimes so you can see I come by this honestly.

On a more positive note, went to an all Gershwin show at the Knoxville Symphony tonight: Cuban Overture, Rhapsody, Porgy & Bess . . . all great stuff, and I feel so much cleaner than if I spent $7 to see, oh, say, Gyneth Paltrow.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I really do understand what you're saying. I have tried for years to separate out the actor from the role. . . but it's getting to the point that it's impossible.

Some of these actors (and writers, and directors, etc.) have expressed such open contempt for the public and what the public holds dear, and have been so glib about supporting people who hate our country, that I simply no longer want to see them. And it is affecting my ability to view movies. . . which truly frustrates me.

It's like The Naked Gun. I thought that was a great film, and I really liked OJ Simpson's role because he seemed like such a decent guy. Now, when I see him, all I see is a cold blooded murderer, a bloody glove, a white Bronco, and a liar without a hint of contrition in his body. So while I can still watch The Naked Gun, I now find those scenes sickening. . . "how can this guy turn into that monster?" And it really pisses me off that this is ruining films for me.

Still, I'm not at the point yet that I can't watch films with people like Penn or Robbins or Matt Damon in them, but I am at the point where the movie better be something I really, really, really want to see -- and there are almost none of those these days.

Regarding Bob Roberts, I'll admit that I was pretty furious when I first saw it because I took the movie as propaganda against my beliefs -- even though I did see it as a good story with good acting and good writing. That gave me a bit of a love/hate relationship with it. But over time, I started to see the irony of it -- that the very things Robbins accused my side of being were in fact blowing up in the news cycle on his side aisle. And in light of that, I have come to enjoy it much more than I dislike the message.

Finally, if Robbins were intellectually honest, he would recognize that his side is doing all the things he criticizes in the film, and he would at least admit publicly that his charges were made against the wrong people. But I don't expect any honesty from him.

Anonymous said...

It's like The Naked Gun. I thought that was a great film, and I really liked OJ Simpson's role because he seemed like such a decent guy. Now, when I see him, all I see is a cold blooded murderer, a bloody glove, a white Bronco, and a liar without a hint of contrition in his body.

Andrew, you'll enjoy the DVD commentary for The Naked Gun. Five minutes in when OJ's character is sneaking around, the moderator asks David Zucker, "So is this actual footage of OJ or the movie?" :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Did you see that Zucker wrote something for Big Hollywood? I don't think he's a conservative, but I think he's losing his liberalism.

That's funny about the commentary. It must be kind of strange for them to look back on events and wonder how someone they knew could turn into a double murderer. . . and have Kato as a house guest.

DUQ said...

They should redo "Bob Roberts" as "Nancy Pelosi". They wouldn't even need to make anything up. She worse than anything Roberts does.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That would be funny, but it would take a less hard-core leftist Hollywood to do that.... even in jest!

Still, that sounds like an excellent suggestion for our "Let's Make A Film" thread from the other day.

Anonymous said...

I didn't watch Zucker's video but he describes himself as a "9/11 Republican."

So I just saw the film. I liked it, though it's not something I plan on revisiting anytime soon. I love movies with an endless supply of familiar faces. :-) Two notes on that: apparently, David Strathairn never ages, and I thought Alan Rickman did a better fake American accent in Die Hard. "Clay. Bill Clay."

I don't disagree with your review and I think much (all) of what Robbins covers applies to both sides, though the irony and "boomeranging" you mention are undeniable.

The "journalist" could easily be a Daily Kos blogger OR someone from, say, Big Government. It's just my uninformed opinion but I think there is some overlap there, at least in terms of guilt by association and nebulous connections where A is guilty because he took money from B who worked for C and Soros comes in at P and Alinsky comes in at Y or Z. :-) Again, just an observation and it doesn't apply all the time. And the folks who write for the Big sites probably dress better!

Re: Jack Black and the fans, I'll say it - the thought of people out there like that in real life scares the shit out of me. But it also goes to something we talked about with Obama and Palin being mirror images of each other, especially in terms of some of their followers, though one can argue that, with Obama, it's all about him whereas with Palin, it's about the country.

I thought the songs were catchy though folk ain't my thing. :-) And the SNL parody was spot on though only Cusack's character appeared to be a bastard. The producer's assistant was the one who cut the power.

There was one VERY timely line when the black Secret Service agent asks the black talk show host, "What, so black people can't have more than one opinion?"

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Nice catch on the black secret service agent -- I'd forgotten about that, and you're right, it is very timely right now.

Rickman always does a poor job of faking an American accent, but I really like his acting, and I thought he did a great job here (and in pretty much everything I've ever seen him in).

I'm glad you agree about the boomerang on this one. I don't disagree with you that these allegations can fit both sides, but it is the left that likes to pretend that its hands are clean.

I don't disagree with you either about BG or some of the other bloggers. Both sides (and the middle) are often prone to hypocrisy, seeing bad only in the other guy, paranoia and conspiracy theory, and bad judgment. . . though I think it's much worse on the left than the right these days. The left has mixed in an incredible amount of anger and paranoia these days, and they've all but abandoned ideology. The right is much better at keeping its lunatics in check and still does have a set of beliefs other than "get the people we don't like".

Re Jack Black and friends, I don't think many people like that really exist, though there are some. . . mostly in cults, mental hospitals, or hunting Jodie Foster. That said, I do think there is a watered-down version at the fringes of politics (about 3-6% of the population). They blind themselves to reality and think of themselves as victims and rant and rave about things they know nothing about and spin conspiracy theories to no end, but I don't think they're actually dangerous. Their ideas are ridiculous and while they think that 90% of the public secretly believes what they do, no one even considers their ideas. What's more, I think that only a handful of them are actually violent (groups like ELF) or al Qaeda.

On the Palin v. Obama people, I agree completely. Both groups display a cult-like mentality that blinds them to reality and makes them immune to facts and reasoning. And I think you're right that its more about country with the Palin people than the Obama people, but not by much. Both groups have invested their personal beliefs into the person rather than anything the are representing, which is why they are so easily obsesses about minutia and why they can't accept the slightest hint of flaws or disagreement.

Ed said...

Haven't seen it, but it sounds interesting.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I think it is. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Individualist said...

I think there is one clear distinction between Palin and Obama people.

For Obama people it is whether or not any dictate he makes should not immediately become the personal mandate for each individual in the country.

For Palin people it is merely about whether or not she can reside in her house without some strange ideological nazi moving next store so that he can watch her family and write about it.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I think there is more to it than that -- too many of the Palin people I've seen will not accept any criticism of her no matter how legitimate. But I would say that the Palin people at least come with an agenda that they think she shares, unlike the Obama people who simply trust him to do whatever is good for them.

Individualist said...


If there were any chance of Sarah Palin being considered for public office I might worry about it. Trouble is that the left enacted a full bore public relations character assasination on her and it worked. If she wanted to stay in the political fray she should have not resigned as Governor but I suspect her decision was in part to take the rug out from under the nastier ones. Still the left won in that regard.

Now she is a commentator on Fox News and she rallies the troops at Tea Party events. We don't have to worry about "criticizing" her because she'll never be going to the show. I think part of what you are seeing in the support for her on the right is as much a defiance of the MSM poltical narrative as it is support for her views.

There might be some valid criticism of her on the right but what I have heard from McCain Rino's is just a watered down reiteration of the nonsense from the left. I will worry about listening to that "criticism" when the other side at least acknowledges what accomplishments she had made. Which of course will be never.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I think you're right that she won't run, so it doesn't really matter -- though I think she will continue to flirt with running, like Gingrich does, so she can maintain her support and raise money.

I understand what you are saying and I agree completely that the attacks on her have been savage and unfair. I also agree that the McCain-RINO faction simply accepts what the left says as true. BUT, there are very valid criticisms of her that her supporters refuse to hear. And when I say "refuse," I mean that even suggesting such a criticism is enough to get you flamed by dozens of people, all of whom accuse you of being a secret leftist.

In terms of valid criticisms, I say apply the equivalency test: if Hillary had done the same thing or had the same experience level, would you be criticizing her for that? If so, then why shouldn't the same issue be a valid criticism of Palin? But that's where the problem arises, when you try to explain that to her supporters, they get very irrational and they start to accuse you of trying to undermine her. Whenever you can't express legitimate concerns, that's cult-like behavior, and it's very disturbing.

Joel Farnham said...


I am curious as to what criticisms you see?

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, For example: (1) Lack of experience, which is a huge problem, see Obama (which was also a valid conservative criticism of Obama). (2) Lack of basic foreign policy knowledge (a valid criticism made of both Obama and Hillary, who both had more knowledge on the topic than Palin), and worse, refusing to go get that knowledge. (3) A very poor performance in interviews -- say what you like about the interviewers being nasty to her, but she should have done a lot better on the softball questions. And since that time, she's been so stage managed that there have been no interviews for us to judge if she's improved -- that's always a bad sign. (4) Quitting the governorship -- and not being truthful about the legal fees she claims to have incurred. (5) Her endorsement policy has been erratic, picking RINOs as well as conservatives. (6) Starting a reality tv show rather than doing something serious related to politics.

All of these are things that conservatives have routinely criticized leftists or other conservatives for, and those criticism were validly made, but Palin's supporters will not accept that these are legitimate complaints against her.

Joel Farnham said...


You tempt me to fisk you. Some of these have been expanded upon ad nauseum. You won't accept those answers.

I have not heard anything about her not being truthful about her fees. That I would like to know more about it.

Her stint at Reality TV seems to not affect her serious work in politics. You do have a point about her backing RINO's.

I more concerned about the various groups dedicated to Palin. The mere fact that they exist in such numbers is troublesome to me.

Short List, PalinTV, conservatives4palin, Texas for Sarah Palin etc.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, On the legal fees, the numbers she sited were nowhere near realistic. Regarding the state, every state has 1-2 full time employees in their state attorney general's office that handle these matters. Their cost is the cost of those employees salaries, which are already budgeted by the state even if no one ever sues Palin -- thus, zero additional dollars to the state.

In terms of the private costs she supposedly incurred, I know what both big and small firms charge. Full on litigation at a huge East Coast firm with teams of full time associates, which this was not, costs about $200k a year. What she was talking about defending probably cost around $25k a year. Also, there are procedures in place that reduce the time involved to the parties to almost nothing to prevent litigation from becoming a tool for harassment, even if the litigation is brought by different groups.

What are your concerns regarding the multiple groups?

Joel Farnham said...


The mere fact that there is more than one site dedicated to her bugs me. Doesn't it bother you that there is one site which saves every word uttered by her in public? I don't know, it could be in response to our media which distorts every thing and this is necessary to get down on record what actually was said.

Another way of putting it, she has fan clubs popping up every where.

The good thing about this is that occasionally when a writer does a hit piece on her, it gets quickly destroyed.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I would agree with that.

I'm bothered by the whole celebrity culture in fact. If someone has an achievement, we should honor the achievement and respect the person... BUT our current culture has gone way beyond that. People seem to fall into obsessive love with all kinds of people and for all the wrong reasons. Take Paris Hilton, she's famous for being famous and there are thousands of people making a living off of recording everything she does. . . because people are hanging on her every word, buying the things she buys, and idolizing her. In a more sane society, someone would have sent her to reform school to clean up her act and the rest of us would ignore her.

But I think we've entered an era where a great many people have taken to person-worship and they are obsessive about it.

That's what bothers me whenever I hear people trying to find out what Obama eats on his pizza or trying to buy the brands that Michelle Obama wears. These are humans, not gods, and it strikes me as mentally ill to obsess about everything in their lives and to emulate them to the point of devouring every single detail of their existence. In other words, if you need to know what Obama puts on his pizza, then you have a mental problem.

I can't say that the Palin groups are as bad because I don't honestly follow them. They could be, I just don't know. But I do know that whenever I get into discussions about her, her followers creep me out just as much as her opponents. The opponents will believe things that have been proven to be false because they want to believe it, and her fans will refuse to believe things if they are at all negative, and then they attack you for not believing and for "trying to destroy her."

Think back on Reagan. Reagan is easily the greatest politician of the last 100 years. But he made mistakes and no one freaked out when people mentioned it. I could point out a dozen mistakes he made and people will either agree or not and will discuss it. But to criticize Palin (or Obama) is almost always to invite hate and denial.

And that's troubling because that tells me their support is not based on rational behavior, but is purely emotional and entirely irrational. I don't hold that against either Obama or Palin, but it does make it very hard to discuss them rationally.

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