Great political movies (No51) Bob Roberts

Few things age as quickly as satire. Because it’s so often heavily reliant on news and topical events, what’s cutting edge one day can be irrelevant a few weeks later. For instance it’s actually quite difficult to watch old episodes of British quiz show Have I Got News For You, because a lot of the references are now hopelessly out of date.

The best way round this is to focus on broad themes that will always be relevant. A good example is Spinal Tap, after all, rock stars will always say and do silly things. In terms of politics, films and shows like Network, Dr Strangelove and Yes Minister, will always remain fresh because they were either ahead of the curve or contain universal truths.

In some ways Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins 1992 satire of American politics, is a mixture of both good and bad. It’s a mockumentary about a British film crew covering the Senate campaign of right-wing businessman and folk-singer Bob Roberts. Roberts was brought up in a  hippy commune but is now the epitome of right-wing greed. The backdrop is the run up to the first Gulf War and the hot-button issue of US intervention.

The film mostly captures the mood of the time, particularly the way the Republican Party were beginning to latch onto popular culture in a way they hadn’t before. Roberts achieves great success by effectively ripping off Bob Dylan songs and music videos (possibly Bill Clinton was inspired by this to show off his saxophone playing skills on TV). The film also predicts the growing partisanship and the start of the so-called ‘culture wars’ of the 1990s. Also the increasing role image and spin would play in US elections.

For such an outspoken and committed liberal, Tim Robbins has always done very well for himself by playing right-wing lunatics (Arlington Road, Antitrust, War of the Worlds etc). The trouble is, to put it mildly, Robbins at this point in his career lacked the charisma to play a popular politician like Roberts. It doesn’t help that he spends a lot of the time in the company of Alan Rickman as his shifty CIA campaign manager. Perhaps they should have swapped roles as Rickman is really good at playing fun bad-guys. Seeing him play a right-wing US politician is such a brilliant idea I’m surprised it hasn’t already been done.

The other problem with the film is that Rob Roberts is too obviously a strawman political caricature of everything Hollywood liberals feel is wrong with Republicans. Satire rarely works with characters who are two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. He might as well have had “I’m evil” tattooed on his forehead for the entire film. It would have been significantly more interesting if there had been more ambiguity about his politics, or even if he’d been charming or even semi-likeable. Instead he constantly comes across as inauthentic and creepy, and this really distracts from the films message. His 1980s Gordon Gekko persona was already out of date by 1992 and feels oddly out-of-place here. Most politicians, including Clinton, were trying to triangulate their policies to take the centre ground. Even George W Bush in 2000 ran as a ‘Compassionate Conservative’.

Meanwhile, if you were still in any doubt as to the films politics, Gore Vidal pops up playing Roberts opponent.  He mainly just sits behind a desk and lectures to the audience, making the film’s message abundantly clear. In this case, show not tell would probably have worked better. It’s ironic to note that Vidal’s character is accused of an affair with a younger woman, something that would dog Bill Clinton throughout his presidency. Equally Tim Robbins was a big supporter of John Edwards in 2008, who was later discovered to have his fair share of marital problems.

In summary then, Bob Roberts is still well worth watching as a snapshot of a very particular moment in US politics, and the broader themes and ideas are still relevant today. However in other ways it’s not dated that well, and suffers from the fact that for a mockumentary it’s simply not that funny.

Here is the trailer for Bob Roberts:

For a full list of great political movies please click here

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About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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