I’m calling this article Part 1 in a series of Must-Watch-Media in the Trump Era (AKA the End Times). There are certainly other films and shows that help us understand the particularly fucked-up moment we’re all currently inhabiting. But I’ll start with Bob Roberts, because it’s so much fun.
It’s the story of Bob, a loveable folk-singer populist running for a Senate seat. He’s up against the incumbent, a respected patrician centrist played by Gore Vidal. The movie itself is a kind of pseudo-documentary (shot by a fictional British film crew), showing the inner-workings of the campaign, as well as the ongoing investigation of the campaign by a tenacious independent journalist.
Oh, and Bob is a fascist ball of hate, using folk music’s imagery to sell a sinister vision of America’s glory days (Make America Great Again?). He’s Dylan and Reagan rolled into a Brooks Brothers suit, surrounded by Wall Street vultures and ex-military killers. The film may have been satirical when it was released in 1992, but it sure doesn’t feel that way now.
If you’ve never seen the film, go watch it now. I’ll wait.
Not on Netflix Canada, US Netflix has it, not on Amazon Prime Canada… so I guess you can find the torrent site of your choice and-
Oh. Oh I’m being told not to recommend illegal downloading. Apparently that’s bad.
Respect our (broken and pointless) copyright laws. Purchase a needlessly expensive version of this film. Obey your media industry overlords.
There, now that we’ve all seen the film, here are my 10 favourite things, in no particular order:
1) Alan Rickman is in it. The late, great Alan Rickman plays a campaign manager (Lukas Hart the Third) with a super shady past (hints of Iran-Contra for sure). It’s clear that he’s in this for his own reasons, and the film gives us a few little glimpses here and there. I particularly love the insistence that Bob can’t possibly be a bad person, as he is a Christian. So how DARE you accuse the man of any untoward behaviour! Absolute perfection.
2) Gore Vidal is in it. I mean… they had to cast a sitting establishment Senator (Brickley Paiste… what a name), and they got Gore goddam Vidal. When Paiste (spoiler…) loses, he seems quite content to let the people reap what they have ignorantly sowed. You did this to yourselves, and I will not be here to save you when you realize what you’ve done. This is pretty well the role Vidal was born to play.
3) The SNL-esque sequence I mentioned in my previous article. When a major TV network gives Bob Roberts a platform, some of the regular actors and producers on the show resist. To the point of tearing out electrical cables and shutting down the entire broadcast. Just once in the Trump era, I’d like to see someone have the conviction to act like this. It can’t just be ordinary citizens in the streets: someone with a platform really needs to take the Orange One down a notch. I shouldn’t have to resort to 1992 for my political fantasies.
Oh, and John Cusack delivering this little gem:
“In the beginning, our great company provided appliances for the neighborhood. We heated your home, we refrigerated your food, and improved the quality of your life. We prospered, and you loved us. And we grew into a large multinational corporation. In fact, we own this very network. Our chief source of income, however, is… the arms industry! Yes, we rely heavily on those fat government contracts, to make these useless weapons of mass destruction. And even though we have been indicted and convicted for fraud several times, you don’t hear too much about our bad side, because, well, we own our own news division. Chances are pretty slim that you’ll hear reports of our environmental mishaps, or the way we bust those unions. We even have a highly-rated Saturday night show that the public buys as entertainment with a leftist slant.”
4) Jack Black as a Bob Roberts fanatic. Not just a supporter, but a true-believer in the Cult of Bob.
On election night in November, there were some photos circulating of Trump supporters celebrating in Times Square. Fine young
cannibals gentlemen such as these:
My first thought? Jack Black carving ‘BOB’ into his forehead in this film:
As a general rule: if large numbers of women (particularly women of colour) are marching in the streets, just follow them. They’re always heading in the right direction. If you see large numbers of white men gathering in the street? Run. Like. Hell. Nothing good is going to happen.
5) Giancarlo Esposito as ‘Bugs’ Raplin. Esposito is known to many film enthusiasts as Buggin’ Out from Do the Right Thing (another must-see film). Many more of you will know him as Gus from Breaking Bad – one of the finest TV villains we’ve ever seen. Here, he’s the reporter who had Roberts figured out from day one, and is dead set on exposing the man to the world. He doesn’t buy the smiling, waving, kissing babies version of Roberts: he knows what kind of man is hiding behind all of that. Let’s just say… things don’t go well for Bugs. When you’re dealing with this level of sociopathy, violence is to be expected.
6) Lynne Thigpen, AKA the Chief from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, summing up the appeal and terror of Roberts:
“Bob Roberts is yet another of that faction that lives to destroy whatever good came out of the 60s, to rewrite the history of that important period. A period where the American people actually were informed and aware, and realized that they had a voice. They demanded that a war end. Bob Roberts is Nixon, only he’s shrewder, more complicated, this Bob Roberts. Now here is a man who has adopted the persona and mindset of a free-thinking rebel and turned it on itself. The Rebel Conservative! That is deviant brilliance. What a Machiavellian poser.”
7) Oh, have I not mentioned Tim Robbins yet? As Bob, Robbins is 90% charisma, 10% terror. There’s definitely a violent side, and you would never, ever want to know the things that likely happen on his campaign bus when no one else is looking. But when he sings to an adoring audience (‘The Times They Are A Changin’ Back’) you can’t help but understand the appeal.
Robbins also wrote and directed the film. Between this, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Shawshank Redemption, I was quite sure he was the best actor in the world in the early 1990s.
Here he is, singing “I’m a Bleeding Heart”
8) As the film ends, the documentary filmmaker who serves as narrator of the film visits the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and reads the following:
“I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”
Bob Roberts thrives in a world of stupidity, ego, malice, and greed. He wins the election because of his moral failings, not in spite of them. The film reminds us that fascism doesn’t always arrive in jackboots and black leather jackets. The populist strong-man, the outsider billionaire… same shit, different mask.
9) Susan Sarandon makes a brief appearance in the film. Susan Sarandon is great, and I am quite tired of establishment Democrats chastising her for the unpardonable sin of not loving Hillary Clinton.
As @PixelatedBoat noted on Twitter:
“Imagine 1) believing Susan Sarandon cost Hillary the election and 2) believing that reflects worse on Sarandon than Clinton”
Sarandon was right in 2016, and she’s right today. Also, Janet in Rocky Horror Picture Show. I rest my case.
10) This movie isn’t about Trump. It’s barely about 1990s Republicans. But it is certainly a product of the post-Reagan era.
If I had to make a list of the Worst Presidents in American History (pleeeease ask me to make this list. I’d love to), Reagan is pretty much at the top of the heap. Robbins and the cast of Bob Roberts seem ready to face a new era (of Clintonian neoliberal mediocrity…) but they are not ready to forgive or forget the damage Reagan did to both America and the world.
In the words of Killer Mike, I’m glad Reagan dead:
So there you go. Fantastic piece of political commentary, with an amazing cast. Do yourself a favour this week, and get a little more angry with the world.