Give Tim Robbins‘ film Bob Roberts this, three decades after its release: Who could ever imagine a cynical, malevolent political outsider, running as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania? Bob Roberts walked so Dr. Mehmet Oz could run.
Bob Roberts was Robbins’ grand manifesto about American politics circa 1992, taking simultaneous shots at celebrity culture, Christian conservatism, and even the pre-Trump conflation of politics and celebrity culture. The movie, which came out on September 4, 1992 — 30 years ago this week — also gave Robbins the ability to sing a bunch of his own songs, in full.
There were a bunch of auteur-driven political satires in the late 1980s into the 1990s, like Warren Beatty’s Bulworth and Robert Altman’s TV series Tanner ’88, all the way up until the Clinton-era shenanigans of Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors and Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog. But Bob Roberts was up there with the best of them.
The film is frequently ham-handed and doesn’t land anywhere close to every punch; there has never, as far as I know, been a popular conservative folk singer who crossed into electoral politics. But I’ve always had something of a soft spot for it, and Robbins — who hasn’t always hit the mark with political statements over the years — clearly saw something coming.
Bob Roberts is presented as a mockumentary, produced by a British documentarian (Brian Murray) seeking to understand American politics. Brickley Paiste, an older McGorvernite senator (played by Gore Vidal) is being challenged by the titular Roberts, a conservative folk singer who has adapted the Dylan-esque musical traditions of the 1960s counterculture to explicitly Reaganite politics. The Dylan parallels are many, from his name being “Bob” to album titles like The Times They Are a-Changin’ Back, and Bob on Bob, to a specific parody of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:
There’s a touch of Trump to him as well, bringing something wildly new to politics, from the right, while also going full-populist. And Trump was known for occasionally wrapping his body in the American flag, which Roberts did on the poster for the movie.
In between musical numbers, we see the campaign unfurl, with various twists (Paiste is implicated in a dubious sex scandal, Roberts’ campaign is threatened by Giancarlo Esposito‘s radical journalist, who is later framed for an assassination attempt, before he’s killed himself).
Throughout, a parade of great actors make their way through the campaign, including Alan Rickman and Ray Wise — who killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me just a week before — as Roberts’ political advisers. The likes of John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, James Spader, and Peter Gallagher also show up, as does a very young Jack Black.
In the end, the film goes all in on Roberts being an evil liar, in the sort of thing that looked like a stretch back in 1992, but history has absolved it in many ways.
Then again, Bob Roberts, for all his many faults, is a much more talented politician than Dr. Oz.
But speaking of Senate races this year, a Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri named Trudy Busch Valentine released a folk song that sounded like something from Bob Roberts:
Bob Roberts isn’t streaming, but if you want to see something like it, just turn on cable news.