Tim Robbins knew what was coming. Back in 1992, the same year in which he starred in Robert Altman’s The Player, he wrote, directed, and starred as the titular character in this mockumentary Bob Roberts – a political comedy which may or may not have revealed something telling about where the nation is set to go. That’s the scary part of the effectiveness of the satire that Bob Roberts is presenting, at first the image that we are looking at is so funny and then when looked at in comparison to world events, suddenly all that humour becomes something more than just a funny moment – it was a warning. It was funny then, but when we look at where we have all gone now, it might not have been so much of a joke as it initially may have been seen as.
In Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins plays a Bob Dylan-esque folk singer going by the name of Bob Roberts. Roberts’s music, containing a striking resemblance to Bob Dylan’s own tunes ends up earning him enough money to campaign for the United States Senate representing conservative Republican ideals, much like his music had been spreading all across the nation. The whole way through, he is competing against an incumbent Democrat and is filmed through and through by a British documentary filmmaker, capturing every last second of the campaign as it moves all across America. It would already be easy enough to get an impression that Robbins was clearly inspired by Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap when making Bob Roberts but something more within the way it’s made allows its cleverness to shine.
Based off the same character whom Robbins had played on Saturday Night Live, Bob Roberts is a mockumentary ahead of its time not only in the sense that it was a warning for what was set to come in America at another point in time, but the parodic nature it employs also makes it work well enough as a tribute to the films which it clearly took inspiration from. One of said films was Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, but when one observes the way the camera moves around Roberts’s campaign, there are many hints that also trace back to D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back – the 1967 documentary covering Bob Dylan while he was on his 1965 concert tour in England. Robbins’s intention to pay tribute to Bob Dylan with this spoof of his rise to fame is a clever one, but something more meaningful arises in no time.
Where Bob Roberts also works comes down to how Robbins intends to move his titular character around not just one specific political figure but the flaws that form the political system to which it is portraying. One can compare Roberts to as many political figures as he can, but it’s clever what Robbins is exposing on the inside when it comes to how he breaks down the process in front of our eyes. We are not only looking at the system’s flaws from what it shows anyone about how someone with so little experience can manage to get in, but in the meantime we also have a biting critique of media, and how in nature it is far too easily manipulated for the most unsuspecting of citizens who are set to believe whatever comes in front of their eyes. It would be clear already from the fact that Roberts is clearly manipulating the general consensus to move inside of his favour but as more unsuspecting followers come, they sucker themselves to everything that one says to a point they move around like puppets.
Yet what’s most amazing about how much does Bob Roberts manage to achieve is how much of this smart and relevant commentary is framed in the middle of any ordinary comedy. And down to the bone, it still works so well enough there – all thanks to Tim Robbins’s own script together with his performance as the corrupt Bob Roberts. It’s funny enough looking at how Tim Robbins is exaggerating the most misguided ideals that the nation seems to allow itself to succumb to following, and Robbins just goes completely carefree in the role. As a Bob Dylan-esque folk singer carrying so many exaggerated ideals all at once, there’s enough charm to be found whenever he starts singing but the whole cast provides enough humour to keep the whole product flowing as warmly as it does.
Bob Roberts was a warning that we’ve ignored all this time. It knew already what was set to come for America’s future and at its time, it was never afraid to go all out by showing how ridiculous they were. It knew how funny they were, but the fact that they are about to become a reality is something I cannot seem to find myself imagining properly because there’s no way they could work properly. And considering the fact that this was also Tim Robbins’s own directorial debut, looking into how similar Roberts’s ideals are to many politicians we are finding in this day and age makes its satire all the more effective – as it’s both funny and terrifying in equal measure. If it were hilarious back in the day, it’s all the more relevant now.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Tim Robbins
Screenplay by Tim Robbins
Produced by Forrest Murray
Starring Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, Gore Vidal, John Cusack, Peter Gallagher, Alan Rickman, Susan Sarandon, James Spader, Fred Ward
Release Year: 1992
Running Time: 104 minutes