Continuing my trek through the films I wrote about for the episode of The Reel Thing that recapped the best and worst films of 1992, we come to the #6 entry on my list. The directorial debut of Tim Robbins is especially pertinent any time another election year comes around, especially as every new cycle makes more prescient its bleak comic assessment of ugly, reactionary politics and the value of genuine governing and intellectual accomplishment getting brutally displaced by empty celebrity. In other words, it’s aged well.
Since 1992 was an election year full of surprises, it only seems just that one of the best films of the year seemed to foretell them all. In the film BOB ROBERTS, writer-director-star Tim Robbins takes a satirical and hysterical look at the political process and knocks off each of his targets with startling accuracy. The title character is a right-wing folk singer who runs for one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seats, a campaign that is presented to us in a documentary format, much like Rob Reiner’s breakthrough film, THIS IS SPINAL TAP. Candidate Roberts is a media savvy individual who knows how to project a smooth, friendly exterior while masking a savagely vicious interior. Horrid mudslinging, media manipulation, and blatant exploitation of the fears of common people are all present in the Roberts campaign, and Robbins serves it up along with telling glimpses of Roberts’s most fervent followers, which makes it absolutely clear how the candidate is able to connect with so many people. Robbins also turns in an extraordinary acting performance as Roberts, nailing the character’s appealing image while subtly letting us see the hateful man behind the facade. Gore Vidal also excels as the longtime incumbent trying to fight off the challenge of Roberts, as does Ray Wise as one of the folksinger’s handlers. But the film stands primarily as Tim Robbins’s achievement. It is a daring comedy that tears apart the false front of the politicians that try to charm us and the news media that dutifully report their substance-free soundbites. And, perhaps above all, Tim Robbins has made a persuasive case for the importance of voting and not letting your own future fall into other people’s hands.