Politics is again driving culture in a way unseen in a decade. If not longer. The US has once more elected a perceived outsider to the Presidency. How did he do it? By appealing to the hearts and minds with the promise of change. In 2008, Barack Obama explicitly promised “change.” Now Donald Trump achieved success by literally changing the way politics is discussed in the country. Before them, in 1992, Bob Roberts did something similar.
Bob Roberts is a member of the New Right. Countrified, yet a yuppie. Folksy, but a Wall Street floor trader. His character is a strange amalgamation that appeals to the rural and the rich by appealing to a perceived American virtue: wealth. Senator Paisley, meanwhile, thinks that handouts to the poor and jobless is a way to fix societal ills. Also, he’s weak on defense for the nation. So watch Bob’s rise on the campaign trail and come to the conclusion that so many other Americans have reached: vote Roberts to the Pennslyvania Senate in ’92.
Tim Robbins, playing the “radical conservative” Roberts, is also behind the camera and at the writer’s desk in this early 90’s mockumentary. Obviously influenced by Ross Perot’s outsider campaign, which attracted voters from the Right and Left, Bob Roberts is meant to be all things to all people. Yet Robbins does not make his candidate not a shell of a person. Roberts is obviously in on the hypocritical aspect of his persona, yet also is enamored by his positive reaction amongst voters.
This ambiguous is what drives and muddles the film. Roberts opponent Paisley, played by Gore Vidal, invokes poetic diatribes against the political system, politicians, and voters – the author’s wheelhouse. Giancarlo Esposito, playing radical journalist “Baz,” heavily elaborates on internal government workings that the audience is unsure whether to take seriously. Robert’s right-hand man, played by Alan Rickman, was embroiled in the Savings and Loan scandal and Iran-Contra. These three prominent characters, along with a laundry list of cameos, represent a reality rather than satisfy a specific role.
Robbins’ has stated that the film is meant to examine the American political landscape, particularly the media, rather than reignite Reagan-era scandals. Yet Esposito and Rickman’s characters rely on the infamous drug smuggling of Iran-Contra and Savings & Loan fraud to justify action. Furthermore, the film leverages much of Roberts v. Paisley on the possible use of force confronting Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.
Bob Roberts is a true-to-life mockumentary that still resonates despite context. Billed as a comedy, you’ll definitely cringe more than laugh. Not because Bob Roberts is particularly a Mr. Smith gone wrong. Rather because the because the past continues to be prologue.