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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 Senate elections (which take place in the context of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait 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:

  • 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.
  • Artistic License – Politics: Roberts is shown to be challenging incumbent Paiste in Pennsylvania's Senate election in 1990. There were no elections for the Senate in Pennsylvania during 1990; there were regular elections held there at the same time as presidential and House elections in 1988 and 1992. There would only be an election in 1990 if a senator who was last elected in 1986 or 1988 died or resigned prior to the 1990 election cycle and a special election was held to fill the remainder of the previous senator's term, which would have expired in 1993 or 1995 depending on when the last regular election was.note 
  • Author Tract: In-Universe, Roberts' songs all stridently promote right-wing political positions. The film itself is an example from the left-wing side of things, arguing that conservatives hypocritically preach patriotism and values while seeking money and power, and that establishment liberals are too weak and ineffectual to counter them.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Villain Protagonist Bob Roberts is elected to the Senate and, apparently, the presidency not long after.
  • Blatant Lies: The physician describes injuries suffered by Roberts in the assassination attempt. Roberts never had those injuries.
  • 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' character are strikingly similar to Rick Santorum, a real-life Pennsylvania politician who served in both houses of Congress (he was in the House of Representatives at the time it was new, then was elected to the Senate two years later).
    • Bob appears on a popular, New York-based Saturday night comedy-variety TV show called Cutting Edge Live.
  • Corrupt Politician: Bob at the end of the film. A corrupt extremist willing to use lies, frame an innocent critic and fake a disability has been elected as senator. This does not bode well...
  • 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' 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 couldn't have pulled the trigger, but he's murdered by a right-wing vigilante group off camera and it's made clear that Roberts engineered the whole affair and used the sympathy to sweep himself into office.
  • Downer Ending: Bugs Raplin gets assassinated offscreen, and despite 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 too. 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).
  • Harsher in Hindsight: Invoked and exploited In-Universe: about one of Roberts' 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. The irony is lost on everyone In-Universe.
  • 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. The footage shows the fakery, but only in the Roberts campaign.
  • 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.
  • Properly Paranoid: Raplin is convinced the attempt on Bob Roberts' life was just part of his scheme. Unfortunately, he has no hard evidence and he's killed for real before he can find it.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: This is supposed to be a documentary In-Universe. The camera spots Bob 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: While Bob may call himself a "rebel" for using folk songs in the style of Bob Dylan to support conservatism, by 1990, Republican ideology had dominated national-level American politics for almost a decade, and Democrats like Bill Clinton were starting to adopt more conservative stances in the hopes of electability. Even setting aside what a reactionary Roberts is, he's only championing a more hardline version of what was then the status quo; his sole "rebellion" is a cultural one against '60s folk music itself for its typically left-wing values.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus 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, and a few scenes imply that Roberts is having an affair with one of his backing singers.
  • Straw Character:
    • Ya think? Bob is a no-holds-barred Take That! to right-wing, evangelical, capitalist conservatives, simultaneously a wide-eyed fanatic and a scheming cynic.
    • His opponent, Senator Paiste, gets off lighter but is still an unflattering 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.
  • 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 Black attack protesters at one of his concerts).
  • Strawman News Media: Aside from Bugs, all the news media are easily manipulated or biased for Roberts, uncritically passing on his faked claims about his opponent and himself.
  • 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 his assassination attempt was faked.