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Film / Bob Roberts

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Bob Roberts is a satirical Mockumentary about a fictional American political figure, and the first movie directed by Tim Robbins, who also wrote the screenplay and played the title character. It was released in 1992.

Bob Roberts is a rising star of the Republican Party. On the occasion of the campaign for the forthcoming Senatorial elections (which take place in the context of the Kuwait invasion by Iraq and US response from 1990), a British film crew follow him as he raises support in his home state of Pennsylvania. Roberts is young and charismatic, with a populist touch which he cultivates by playing folk songs at political rallies taking off Bob Dylan songs with the exact opposite messages (even with music videos like Dylan's). His message is one of social and moral conservatism, based on family values, faith in God, an overt rejection of the heritage of the 1960s (he was raised on a commune by hippie parents), and very pro-business policies. Running against an incumbent liberal Democrat (played by Gore Vidal), he projects an image of plainspoken honesty and dynamism.


As the movie goes on, however, people start whispering about Bob's funding coming from sources that are significantly less wholesome than the image he's cultivating. About halfway through, he survives an assassination attempt. The results of the election -- both political and personal -- come out less rosy than expected going in.

Contains examples of:

  • Broken Aesop: The film is ostensibly a satirical mockumentary attacking right-wing politicians who adopt the rhetoric of rebelliousness in order to look cool, but it portrays those same right-wing politicians as powerful, persuasive and deadly, and those who oppose them as ineffectual, unconvincing and unsympathetic.
  • The Cameo:
    • Many well-known actors play TV news anchors and reporters.
    • An odd, unintentional one by a prop. The Cutting Edge Live scene was actually filmed in Pittsburgh at WQED, the PBS station where Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was taped, and at one point a character walks past King Friday XIII's castle backstage. Series regular Don Brockett also has a blink-and-you-miss-it role as a senator in the Iran-Contra hearings scene.
  • Captain Ersatz:
    • Coincidence or not, certain aspects of Bob Roberts's character are strikingly similar to real-life Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
    • Bob appears on a popular, New York-based Saturday night comedy-variety TV show called Cutting Edge Live.
  • Dirty Old Man: The Roberts campaign accuses the elderly Paiste of having an affair with a teenage girl. It's revealed she's a friend of his granddaughter-they used a cropped photo, and this made it look like he was with her alone.
  • Disability Alibi: At the end of movie, John Alijah "Bugs" Raplin is arrested for an attempt on Roberts's life, when he's shot and left unable to walk as Bugs confronts him. Bugs is released when it's revealed that due to constrictive palsy in his right hand he physically he couldn't have pulled the trigger, but he's murdered by a right wing vigilante group off camera and it's made clear that the entire attempt was faked by Roberts, who used the sympathy to sweep himself into office.
  • Downer Ending: Bugs Raplin gets assassinated offscreen, and despite all of his corruption, Roberts wins the senate race.
  • Drugs Are Bad: One of Bob's songs is called "Drugs Stink," which goes so far as to threaten violence against not only drug dealers, but drug users. His extreme anti-drug stance only makes his opponents more eager to uncover his connections to a South American drug cartel.
  • Evil Counterpart: Bob Roberts is basically a corrupt Bizarro-Bob Dylan. His music videos even have Shout Outs to Dylan's work, and one of his most prominent songs is called "Times Are Changin' Back" (citing "The Times They Are a-Changin'"). There are some other little allusions to Dylan's life, like Bob falling off a motorcycle and a controversy over allowing him to perform a song when he's scheduled to appear on a TV variety show (like Dylan had with Ed Sullivan).
  • Grey-and-Grey Morality: The title character, although an excellent speaker/musician and a shrewd businessman, is ultimately a hypocritical sleazebag with extremist political views. Meanwhile his opponent, while well-intentioned, is blustery, uncharismatic and somewhat naïve. Neither side look especially good in the end.
  • Harsher In Hind Sight: Invoked and exploited In-Universe: about one of Roberts's sadder songs, a sad fan comments that it's almost as if he knew beforehand that he would be attacked and paralyzed. He and his aides faked the whole assassination attempt.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Define irony: a guy singing a song complaining about people who complain.
  • Intrepid Reporter: John Alijah "Bugs" Raplin, who attempts to dig out the truth about Bob Roberts.
  • Malaproper: Roger (the Loony Fan played by Jack Black) says that Bob's song "I Want to Live", released while he's in the hospital after supposedly getting shot, was "prophestic".
  • Mockumentary: The film is presented as a documentary by a British filmmaker named Terry Manchester, who also narrates and appears on-camera. At one point the documentary itself becomes part of the story, when the footage of the assassination attempt is used by police and the Roberts campaign to try to figure out what happened.
  • No Party Given: Roberts isn't explicitly Republican, though he is called a right-wing conservative. His opponent, Paiste, is explicitly a Democrat—he's noted as "Sen. Brickley Paiste, D-PA" on a news appearance.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Bob claims the assassination attempt has left him paralyzed from the waist down, but he is seen tapping his feet at a celebration party, and later he is shown in silhouette walking upright.
  • Protagonist Title: Named for the main character.
  • Ray of Hope Ending: This is supposed to be a documentary In-Universe. The camera spots him tapping his feet while singing behind a podium in the Senate Chambers. That would have a chance of blowing the whole plot open.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: A guy who sings explicitly right-wing Folk Music scoring Top 10 hits in the latter part of The '80s (alongside Rap and Hair Metal and teen pop) is a definite stretch, but Folk artists like Suzanne Vega ("Luka") and Tracy Chapman ("Fast Car") had big hits in that era. Given that Bob Roberts made eye-catching videos at a time when MTV set the pop music agenda, you can see where he might've lucked out and gotten big based on the sheer novelty value of his act.
  • Repetitive Name: Robert Roberts. Junior.
  • Rule-Abiding Rebel: The title character has guts to spare to call himself a rebel.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Far down the cynical end of the scale.
  • Spin-Off: From Saturday Night Live, believe it or not. Robbins first played Bob Roberts in an SNL sketch from 1986.
  • Stepford Smiler: Bob's wife Polly is the standard serene, docile political wife. She seems to exist only as a campaign prop; we never actually see her interact with Bob outside of staged events.
  • Straw Fan: Any Roberts supporters that are given even a bit role are all portrayed as gullible, homophobic, and violent (to the point that a group of them led by a kid played by Jack Blacknote  attack protesters at one of his concerts).
  • Strawman Political:
    • Ya think? Bob is a scathing caricature of right-wing, evangelical, capitalist conservatives, simultaneously a wide-eyed fanatic and a scheming cynic.
    • His opponent, Senator Paiste, gets off lighter but is still a portrait of the establishment Democrat: a wishy-washy, uncharismatic career politician who breathes moral platitudes with no real conviction behind them, who acknowledges that something is wrong without lifting a finger to change things. His actor, Gore Vidal, was a far-left radical who harshly criticized the Democratic Party.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: A 1992 film set in 1990, with the lead-up to the first Gulf War as an important backdrop to the story.
  • Villain Protagonist: Even the most charitable interpretation of Bob Roberts still paints him as a willing front man for corrupt interests. But his hypocrisy, cynical pandering and narcissism all come through loud and clear, and the accusations that he was involved in outright criminality are never fully dismissed.
  • Wham Shot: At the concert he gives toward the end of the film, a close-up shows supposedly paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Bob tapping his foot, confirming that he staged his assassination attempt.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Never stated outright, but we never see Bob share any real moments with his wife Polly. However, there's one scene where he's alone with Clarissa, his on-stage duet partner (played by veteran Alternative Country singer-songwriter Kelly Willis), working on a song, and Bob gives a look to the camera that implies that he'd rather not have people know he's with her, and the two definitely seem to have a strong rapport, at the very least.


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