Before I make my peace about Bob Roberts, the folk singing conservative Senate candidate from Pennsylvania that is the subject of Tim Robbins 1992 mockumentary of the same name I feel it is appropriate that you take a look at one of his political ditties. These two are called “Bleeding Heart” and ” Complain”.
I’m sure even if you didn’t get through all 4 minutes of the clip you can already see the problem with taking an objective look at Bob Roberts. Tim Robbins, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, is a well known liberal and it is very clear that he is taking a serious potshot at what he thinks the biases of the conservative ideology are. Bob Roberts is a fairly over the top caricature of the idea of a grassroots, populist republican and it’s hard not to let your particular political leanings affect how you see the film as a whole. The whole conspiracy with the fake shooting that fake paralyzes Bob at the end of the film, and its subsequent cover-up is way over the top, and forces the film to a awkward and unsatisfying conclusion, but in the hour or so before it Bob Roberts works as an excellent look at campaigning, the media, and cult of personality.
The funny thing after watching the film is that outside of its specific political messages the film is actually pretty prophetic about how election coverage has changed, and the idea of a politician as celebrity. To fill you in completely, Bob Roberts is a popular conservative folk singer who toured the country and sold millions of albums and used his popularity and money from shady business dealings to make a run for a Senate seat. While at first it seems far-fetched, celebrities and politics have been becoming more intertwined and acceptable since Reagan became President in the 1980s. We’ve had comedians (Al Franken), wrestlers (Jesse Ventura), actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger), football players (Jack Kemp, Heath Shuler, Byron “Whizzer” White), and Sarah Palin even has her own TV show. After all people we are familiar with and like are people that we feel we can trust, and if we can trust Alec Baldwin to make us laugh, why wouldn’t we trust him to represent us in the Senate. Obviously that statement isn’t completely true, but name recognition is important nowadays, and everyone running for office has to gain name recognition before they can win office. While the hope is that they will do this through creating effective policy and being a faithful public servant, it’s far easier to do an interview in Esquire or make appearances on national news outlets. As the news cycle becomes even more instantaneous, all facets of the public are under the microscope. That is why Michele Bachmann is just as likely to trend on twitter as Kim Kardashian.
This point also brings me to the other aspect of the story that I found very relevant to today. In the film Roberts is constantly berated by an underground reporter (Giancarlo Esposito) trying to uncover hidden drug crimes in Robert’s charity Broken Dove. While in 1992 this kind of underground reporter would have difficulty getting his story out there and picked up by national news, the advent of the internet has given an outlet for anyone to make headlines. All it takes is a post on a blog to be picked up by more and more sites until it could hit the front page on major news outlets. In the film Espositio’s character actually has evidence for his claims and his story is picked up by local news outlets, but today even unsubstantiated claims can reach the masses and have serious negative effects. Obviously the increase in media outlets means that we should not believe we read, but not everyone adheres to this rule. This kind of negative campaigning isn’t present throughout most of bob Roberts, but it’s clear Robbins could foresee a future where there is a disconnect between traditional media and underground media competing to get their varying voices heard. The only difference now is that it is far easier to make your voice heard.
This combination of increased news presence and celebrity for politicians leads to the type of fanaticism we now see during elections, and is a big part of Bob Roberts. The film is full of adoring fans, screaming crowds, protesters, and the random public appearances that have become common place today. To get the full effect you have to watch the movie, but outside of Robert’s over-the-top conservatism, it is an interesting look at the modern election cycle. It may seem a little dated at first, however give it a chance to warm up and it is a funny and interesting take on the political cycle.
Up Next: IT ENDS!!! Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II.