The British documentarian Terry Manchester (Brian Murray) directed a film about Pennsylvanian candidate for the U.S. Senate Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) back in 1990, around the time the first Persian Gulf war was brewing. Roberts had made his name as a folk singer, talking off Bob Dylan's career only with a right wing angle, releasing such albums as The Freewheelin' Bob Roberts and The Times are Changing Back, an allusion to his roots where his parents had tried to bring him up in a hippy commune. The Roberts of 1990 could not be further from those origins - he was destined for big things...
For his first film as director, star Tim Robbins looked to Britain to raise the funds for his pointed satire on the way in which showbiz and politics had become unholy bedfellows, something which could in some ways be considered hubris seeing as how he had never made any secret of his espousal of liberal causes. But this was mocking of himself as well, acknowledging that once someone became famous as an actor, singer, or whatever, some of those celebrities felt a compunction to stand on their soapbox and tell the public the way they should be thinking, not unlike the politicians but with a more glamorous background.
So if this were taken to extremes, Bob Roberts would be the politics we would get, although curiously for a film which apparently wished to predict the way society was going to court these leaders the actual message was very much rooted in the past. Bob makes great play of pointing out that the sixties were no golden age of civil rights in his view, and for the most part represented an embarrassment in then-recent American history because they revered disobedience in the face of the authorities who he felt knew best. It is then Robbins made it plain across the rest of the story that his lead character was not only a hypocrite, but a dangerous one who was out to preserve a corrupt status quo, someone the liberals have no chance of opposing (Gore Vidal plays the well-meaning but weak Democrat candidate).
Roberts makes great showmanship of his reactionary songs (deftly crafted by Robbins and his brother David), playing such cards as the lambast the poor on welfare notion, that being that if you need financial help from the government then you are lazy and irresponsible instead of unfortunate, a ploy designed to take away the support from the disadvantaged and channel that massive amount of money into tax breaks for the wealthy, so that the rich - like Roberts - profit off a government in the pocket of big business. But that wasn't all Robbins had in mind, as he grew more conspiratorial in his views when regarding the corruption of the Republican administrations, specifically Ronald Reagan's boys who allegedly made a lot of cash out of illegal drugs money and whitewashed the controversy under a thick layer of supposed patriotism.
See what I mean about having an axe to grind about the past? The justification of the first Gulf War was on the agenda too. That said, something Robbins did get right was the increasing amount of conspiracy theories flying around about the powers that be, except where that had once been the main preserve of the left, and that's the way they're presented here, in the future it would be the right, often the extreme right, who liked the idea of shady cabals running the world. Therefore here the maverick reporter character played by Giancarlo Esposito who dogs Roberts' every move to accuse him of running an illegal fundraising operation winds up being very much part of the candidate's campaign, though not in the way he would have wanted. Back in 1992 it was possible to chuckle heartily at the satirical barbs aimed at the way the media was dumbing down, the politicians were growing devious, and the voices of sanity were being drowned out by simpleminded rhetoric. Now Bob Roberts offers precious little to laugh at.