Looking Back At Bob Roberts
A timeless Tim Robbins mockumentary from 1992.
This week, Matt Taibbi interviewed actor Tim Robbins, who hits some very Middlebrow themes — namely that the shift to e-commerce and algorithms and away from in-person shopping with recommendations from book, movie and record store employees who care, is bad for individuals and society. Robbins also believes that well-intentioned but short-sighted decisions by the Actors Equity Association and California’s state government has made it impossible for small theatres to function in Los Angeles and throughout the state by applying minimum wage standards to the traditionally wageless work of small, non-profit theatre.
Robbins believes there’s a (perhaps only loosely organized or not organized at all) movement afoot against people gathering to share art, culture and conversation. This leads to continued atomization and also makes the population easier to govern because they don’t share ideas and organize.
In the preamble to his interview, Taibbi recalls some of Robbins’ more political films, but somehow doesn’t mention Bob Roberts. Despite turning 30 this year, The Middlebrow finds this political mockumentary is always relevant. At the sunset of Ronald Reagan’s America, conservative folk singer Bob Roberts launches a campaign for U.S. senate. Roberts is a brash, arrogant, good looking and popular young politician with paleoconservative social and political views. He’s also a technologically equipped Wall Street millionaire and his rise to political stardom has been orchestrated by conservative operative Lucas Hart III, played by Alan Rickman. Roberts’ opponent is a thoughtful liberal incumbent Senator who is entirely out of step with the times, played wonderfully by Gore Vidal.
The race becomes something of a duel between the emergent cable news mindset (popularized by CNN’s Crossfire, later weaponized by Fox) and a fading PBS tone (popularized by public funding, depopularized by people having more channels to choose from).
The best gags in Bob Roberts are the songs, including Bob Dylan parodies like “Wall Street Rap” and “The Times They are a Changin’ Back.” There are songs about drug abusing hippies and silly public school teachers banning prayer. The Middlebrow remembers, but can’t confirm, that no soundtrack to the movie was released in the 1990s because Robbins was worried that Republicans would use the songs seriously.
Most of them could be used seriously today and if you doubt the film’s prophetic power, check out this shot of Jack Black, playing a young Bob Roberts fans and modeling a style emulated by Proud Boys and Incels decades later:
Bob Roberts is bleak as it predicts the “politics of personal destruction” era of the Clinton administration and then the increasingly divided society of the George W. Bush and Obama years. In light of this movie, the Tea Party seems less like a quirk from the Financial Crisis than an inevitability.
While it might seem like this would be a harder film for conservatives to watch, the ideology is less its target than the theatrical style of politics that has emerged from the latter half of the 20th century (and only grown worse since).
The drama of the film involves whiffs of conspiracy. Roberts and his handlers were all part of a covered up drug and arms smuggling ring and Roberts is eventually martyred as part of a set-up to frame a homeless journalist who is onto the truth. In the 1990s, after Vietnam, Watergate and Iran-Contra, it was liberals who were always looking for the next cover-up, shadow government or deep state pulling the strings. Now, that paranoia has infected the right. Which, let’s face it, is probably just the way “they” want it.
If you’re looking for a film to watch heading into the midterm elections in the U.S., Bob Roberts should float to the top of your queue.