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Tim Robbins' detour on the campaign trail

CANNES, France -- His new album is "The Times, They Are A-Changin' Back." His hit single, launched with a video on MTV, is "They Complain and Complain and Complain." Bob Roberts is the folk-singing, populist right-wing senatorial candidate for Pennsylvania, running against an aging Kennedy liberal. He doesn't give speeches; he sings songs.

His campaign, which leads up to a tragic (but possibly faked) assassination attempt on election eve, is told in "Bob Roberts," the first film written and directed by Tim Robbins, the young actor who starred in "The Player" and "Bull Durham." It's one of the hits of the Director's Fortnight at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

The movie takes the form of a fake documentary, sort of a cross between "This is Spinal Tap" and parts of "Nashville." It shows the fresh-faced, clean-cut Roberts (played by Robbins) in a campaign against the state's graying liberal eminence, played by Gore Vidal. While Roberts takes the high road, his Machiavellian campaign manager, played by Alan Rickman, takes the low road, smearing Vidal with a scandal about his "affair" with a teenage girl. ("She's the best friend of my granddaughter," Vidal sputters, "who they cropped out of the photo!")

Bob Roberts' campaign platform is simplicity itself: Stop welfare, stop throwing away money on the poor and unemployed, tell the homeless to get a life. He defends the basic American freedoms, which are led by the freedom to get rich. He promises his audiences affluence. They love him.

Visiting Cannes for a week to promote his own film and attend the official festival screening of "The Player," where he stars as a devious Hollywood executive, Robbins looks a little like a candidate himself. He's tall, open-faced, handsome, likes to wear colorful suspenders and shake lots of hands. He looks, in fact, a lot like one of the most famous candidates in movie history, Charles Foster Kane of "Citizen Kane." There are shots in both "Bob Roberts" and "The Player" where he bears an uncanny resemblance to the young, thin Orson Welles.

"I know," Robbins said, beaming, one afternoon out on the pier in front of the Majestic Hotel. "It has been pointed out to me. In fact, I'm discussing a possible film based on a period in Welles' early life, before he made 'Citizen Kane.' "

His trip to Cannes came just a few days after Susan Sarandon, his partner in life, gave birth to their second child, a boy. He missed her at the premiere of "The Player," which has so far been easily the most popular film shown here. She turns up briefly in "Bob Roberts" as a television reporter. Who, I asked, is the character of Bob Roberts inspired by?

Robbins squinted into the sun as if he were trying to decide. "Some people on both sides of the political divide. He's as much about a young George Bush with a guitar as about Bill Clinton, as about David Duke."

Is he . . . a Republican? No political parties are mentioned in the film.

Robbins grinned. "I refuse to answer without my attorney here to advise me. No, we deliberately didn't identify any political parties in the film, although I guess it's safe to say that if Bob Roberts is running against Gore Vidal, Vidal isn't the Republican."

But the movie isn't so much about specific political parties, Robbins said, as about the way American political campaigns have been turned into television entertainment. In his film, anchor couples are forever thanking each other, turning to the camera, and smiling, "On the brighter side of the news. . . ." The movie makes a point of how the Vidal character, thoughtful, professorial, discussing the issues seriously, comes across as "bad television" compared to the slick Bob Roberts, whose sound bites are likely to be from his latest campaign songs.

"I hope the film will help people realize how complicitous the news organizations have become in trivializing our elections," Robbins said. "When the networks started using ratings to determine what would be on their programs, they entered into an arena of entertainment. In doing that, they abdicated their responsibility, which is to be vigilant with the government."

He stopped, thought and added, "but I hope that the film is perceived as entertainment, not as politics, because it is funny, it has music, a beauty pageant, music videos. . . ."

It was almost as if he was trying to boost his own ratings. But the film contains a checklist of recent political scandals and rumored scandals; in it, a key Roberts campaign supporter is accused of using the money from federal housing loans to hire airplanes to bring drugs in from Central America. And the savings and loan scandals are touched upon.

The movie's candidate makes a particular target of "the '60s," by which he seems to mean a dope-addled, sex-crazed generation of liberal hippies. Robbins calls himself a child of the 1960s, but in a different way: "I grew up in Greenwich Village, but I knew a different 1960s than the cliches. A lot of people, Bob Roberts included, when they talk about the 1960s are really talking about style, and I grew up around a lot of ideals and substance. The media began to portray that period as being about haircuts and drug use, and it was so much more than that."

He said he believes the Reagan and Bush administrations "have created an atmosphere of hostility toward things that were once revered. I think a lot of the spirit and work of what happened in the 1960s has been whittled away at, and a huge chasm has been created between the classes. But I also think the selfish society of the last 12 years is ripe for comment, and that people want to see a film like 'Bob Roberts.' The people who finance movies think political films don't sell, but that is starting to show itself as untrue. "JFK" (1991) and Oliver Stone's films in general tend to make a lot of money. That tells you something."

The purpose of bringing a film like 'Bob Roberts' to the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes is twofold: To showcase it as art, and to sell it to various territories around the world. "The reality here is a sur-reality," Robbins said. "I feel like I'm walking through a copy of the Hollywood Reporter. You see all of these films being marketed before they've even been cast."

Marketing - of political candidates - is also a subject of "Bob Roberts." While the mainstream news organizations diddle with side issues, only a reporter for an underground paper (played by Giancarlo Esposito) asks hard questions, including Roberts' links to mismanaged government loans and CIA-sponsored drug trafficking. The mainstream press in the movie is more concerned with the "teenage sex scandal" involving the Vidal character, and even after it is proven that the scandal was fabricated by the Roberts camp, the press continues to refer to it as a "controversy" which is "linked" to the liberal candidate.

To the media in this movie, when fake controversies are created, they are like points scored against their targets, not sins committed by their fabricators.

Movies like "Bob Roberts" fascinate the French because they reinforce the European opinion that American political campaigns are rather juvenile. The French especially love scandals linking American candidates to women who are not their wives. Over here, the romantic liaisons of top political leaders are often common knowledge, but campaigns are fought on issues, not sex lives. "Bob Roberts" argues that American politicians and the U.S. networks have entered into an informal arrangement to make that impossible. It's not good for the ratings.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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