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Imagine a politician who isn’t so much a servant of the people but rather a self-interested megalomaniac who aspires to be in an office for the benefits more than for the right to speak for the people. Probably not all that hard to put to mind. Either way, the movies have long made themselves a source for tales of those seeking public service, some with heroes and some not so much. Bob Roberts is a gem from the early 90s and delivers some biting commentary on the political game with some great performances and a funny script.
THE STORY: Bob Roberts stars Tim Robbins as the titular candidate, a right-winger who delivers his message via folksongs on an acoustic guitar, singing about the larger problems with a sharp tongue and a rhetoric message, appealing to followers who have, in some circles, become fanatic. He’s running against elderly incumbent Democrat, Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal), an honorable, long-term politician who is facing a scandal when a photograph of a girl climbing out of his car is published, a young woman whom he claims is the friend of his granddaughter. It could be a deathblow.
Meanwhile, Roberts’ bus-tour campaign continues to pick up steam even as it draws controversy. He gets backlash on a talk show and then a Saturday Night Live-like late night sketch comedy show has issues when a cast member pulls the plug while Roberts’ takes to the stage with a political message. What’s more, he’s being hounded by an underground journalist named Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito) who believes he has evidence linking a Roberts’ anti-drug charity as a front to an old CIA drug trafficking ploy. Pressures are mounting.
All of this is seen through the camera of Terry Manchester (Brian Murray), a British documentary filmmaker who is following the campaign. This allows the viewer to see Roberts’ in his raw state, letting us in on the backstage missteps and infighting as well as maybe some secrets Roberts doesn’t want us to see. That includes what looks like an assassination attempt that sends Roberts to the hospital, leaving him well, you’ll have to watch to find out.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Robbins, who also wrote and directed, is really good, tackling the high-spirited but ethically-questionable politician, carrying the film straight to the end, however, it’s the supporting characters that really make this what it is, including Alan Rickman as the campaign chairman and most especially Ray Wise playing Chet MacGregor, Roberts’ campaign manager, who is often very funny as he both keeps Roberts on schedule while attempting to shield him from the increasingly illuminating camera of Manchester. A true spin doctor.
Also, look for John Cusack, a longtime friend of Robbins, playing a cast member on the late night sketch show and a small role for Jack Black as one of Roberts more enthusiastic followers. The three would come together most prominently again in 2000’s High Fidelity.
GREAT MOMENT: Are you a fan of Rob Reiner’s classic This Is Spinal Tap (1984)? If you aren’t then you should be. If you are, then you’ll appreciate the nod to that film in Bob Roberts during a scene where the candidate is campaigning in Altoona, Pennsylvania at small town beauty pageant.
Paying homage to Spinal Tap’s iconic moment when the band gets lost in the basement catacombs trying to find the stage above, Roberts is lead about the corridors of the school trying to find the auditorium, all while Raplin thrusts a microphone in his face about the charity accusations. It’s a fast-paced, fast-talking bit that reveals a keen eye for direction for Robbins as well as his ear for smart dialogue. Good stuff.
THE TALLY: Bob Roberts is a sharp political satire that is served as a comedy but works just as well as drama and is surprisingly timeless. While some of the barbs are aimed at times maybe too far gone, many still ring true, and the general message about how politics and corruption and mistrust goes a long way. This is one to watch.
Director: Tim Robbins
Writer: Tim Robbins
Stars: Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman
Run Time: 1 hr 42 m