Happy Birthday, Bob Roberts

Twenty years, and, Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts, though not a classic film, hasn’t aged too badly. Even a classic ages, but it leaves an indelible mark by showing how, despite time and styles of dress, etc, some things never change.

It’s harder to find a political film that could be a classic because the majority of them don’t focus on our commonalities as voters, as people, but on what makes candidates different from us all. Typically, the filmmaker will make a broad stroke to attempt to connect the candidate to a humanity he’s sacrificed.

I’ve watched Bob Roberts no less than a dozen times and have  always been left with the same ambivalence about the film. There’s a nostalgia factor about the film to me now. Maybe it’s because Internet had yet to drastically infuse and radically redirect political discourse to the extent that it has now. For that matter, too, neither was there a FOX News or a Rush Limbaugh; the two were around  but had yet to become the extremist voices that they are recognized as being today.

Except for the character of John “Bugs” Raplin (played by Giancarlo Esposito), the film has no hero. Raplin is the lone moral voice, if you will, the 99 percenter up against the One Percenter Roberts, a wealthy man running for the Pennsylvania State Sentate, using subversive folk music in which greed becomes the heroic quality.

If Woodie Guthrie’s guitar said, “This machine kills fascists,” then Candidate Roberts’ would have said, “This machine guts retirement savings.” “Or communities.” “Or local economies.”

While it has its charms and the satire is at times very broad, particularly the SNL-inspired Cutting Edge scenes, the  news anchor characters – played by Susan Sarandon, Fred Ward and James Spader – have more resemblance to to FOX than to MSNBC. I doubt this was  prescience on Robbins’ part, but he was indicting the press as not being as diligent as a Raplin.

The remaining characters of the film don’t all have direct corelation, obviously, to the current round of candidates and politicos, but there are some similarities.

In the film, Roberts’ campaign manager, Lucas Hart III (Alan Rickman) is depicted as a mercenery who uses his anti-drugs charity Broken Dove as a front for arms shipments to Central America. At the time, this was a nod to Ollie North and the Iran-Contra Affair. Later, we got Vice President Cheney, who, even after he left Halliburton, made sure to throw major contracts to his former company. They succeeded in bilking the Pentagon, as well as putting in danger the civilians sent to Iraq on those contracts.

Then, let’s not overlook Mitt Romney’s Bain, which, as has been reported, have tentacles to the death squads of El Salvador in the ’80s.

Probaby the strongest comparison of Romney and Roberts is that the latter’s campaign bus serves as a rolling stock exchange. His campaign staff are making calls to Asian and European markets around the clock while en route to the next campaign pitstop for Roberts to pull out his guitar and sing songs like “Drugs Stink” while, ostensibly using the anti-drug charity as a front for the arms running.

Besides Raplin, there two other African American characters in the film, one of whom, Franklin (Harry Linnix) is on Roberts’ campaign staff. After leaving a Miss Pennsylvania contest, in which an African American woman won, the others on the bus make a racial joke; the camera catches the flash of pain, then resignation on Franklin’s face.

In an earlier scene, the late Lynn Thigpen, playing the host of a morning show, sits back aghast while Roberts broadly maligns the Civil Rights movement and then smears her character with a patriotic feint.

I think Bob Roberts spoke very specifically for its moment, but I don’t think Robbins made a film that will haunt today’s political watchers. If anything, Roberts might be considered a lightweight next to a candidate like Mitt Romney, who refuses to share his tax returns and about whom more unsavory stories surface to explain that refusal.

If only there were a Bugs Raplin to chase after him.