Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Bob Roberts: Special Edition (1992)
Studio Line: Artisan - Vote first. Ask questions later.

Tim Robbins stars as Bob Roberts, a radical folksinger turned senatorial candidate, in this satirical comedy that blends his campaign trail with singing, music videos and scandal. Bob Roberts is a hilarious film that will change the way you look at American politics!

Director: Tim Robbins
Cast: Tim Robbins, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Ray Wise, Brian Murray, Gore Vidal, Rebecca Jenkins
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 29 chapters; rated R; 102 min.; $24.98; street date 10/17/00.
Supplements: Commentary with Tim Robbins; Commentary with Tim Robbins & Gore Vidal; Commentary with Political Editors Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair; Deleted Scenes; Theatrical Trailer; TV Sports; Photo Gallery; Music Videos; Cast & Crew Information; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/A-

In 1988, my friend Kevin and I went to the beach for the Fourth of July holiday. Soon after we checked into our hotel that night, he stepped onto the balcony for a smoke and I flipped on the TV. The news had just come down that US military forces had shot down an Iranian plane. Kevin walked inside, heard an incredibly brief recap of the events, and declared, “That f-king Reagan - what has he done now?!”

Yes, Kevin is a pretty liberal guy, but I’d never realized how far his knee-jerk tendencies went until that moment. Perhaps this was the natural response to growing up with a fairly vehemently conservative father, who also made snap judgments about concepts and events. In any case, I was surprised and dismayed by Kevin’s statement. Whether conservative or liberal, I despise knee-jerk sentiment of any sort. In the matter at hand, for all he knew, Reagan may have been culpable. Reagan may also have been dead. Kevin had no grasp of any details but he leapt to a strong and emotional conclusion nonetheless.

I mention this story because it came to mind as I watched Tim Robbins’ satirical “documentary” Bob Roberts. Set in 1990, this film concerns the political rise of a staunchly conservative - some might say neo-fascist - young man who runs for the US Senate in Pennsylvania. Bob’s a reverse version of Kevin: he grew up in a very liberal and permissive household and now embraces virtually the opposite values. Oddly, he’s attained considerable success as a folk singer. However, though Bob’s albums consciously echo the work of Dylan, their messages differ radically from those espoused by the former Mr. Zimmerman; with titles like “Drugs Stink” and “Wall Street Rap”, Bob Roberts’ tunes promote greed and negative stereotypes.

The film takes the form of a faux documentary about Roberts’ campaign; it also includes a smidgen of information about his upbringing, but the majority of the details concern what happens on the road. Actually, the movie attempts something of a plot through the recurring presence of scruffy leftist journalist Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito), who repeatedly is rebuffed in his attempts to interview Roberts. Eventually Raplin becomes a significant thorn in the side of the campaign, and retribution occurs.

I’ll leave the nature of those occasions untold so the film can retain surprise, but I will state that the movie enters the realm of the absurd at those times. Bob Roberts can’t quite decide if it wants to be an overtly comedic satire of politics - especially those on the right side of the fence - or if it desires to make grand, Oliver Stone-style statements about corruption and cowardice. The tone fluctuates pretty wildly at times, and the lack of consistency renders both elements less effective.

A lot of my problems with BR revolve around the heavy-handed nature of the film. Robbins is one of Hollywood’s most prominent liberals, and his extreme bias seems ridiculously obvious throughout the movie. A good satire should leave enough elements vague to allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. Yes, some signs of filmmaker’s agenda should appear, but events should be presented objectively enough to leave room for interpretation.

None of that occurs during BR. The entire project feels extremely forced and artificial; Robbins wants to make sure we know how stupid and harmful politicians like Bob are, so we’re never given the slightest opportunity to judge for ourselves. Through Roberts, he creates a personality with absolutely no gray areas. Everything is portrayed as absolutely clear and we’re never given any opportunity to see anything even remotely positive about the character; Bob and all his followers are racist, sexist, greedy, thoughtless bastards, and that’s that.

While I think there are definitely more than a few politicians who represent ideals I don’t favor, I dislike the knee-jerk agenda of BR. The exaggerated evil communicated through Bob and his ilk makes it impossible for me to take any of it seriously. This film doesn’t assume the possibility that the audience will possess any intelligence; instead, it dictates “truth” to us in a condescending and patronizing manner.

A project such as Bob Roberts has merit, but political satires are some of the most difficult to make due to the clarity of the creator’s bias; it’s nearly impossible for this form of work to avoid the taint of ideological fervor. Wag the Dog failed for similar reasons. The Candidate treated its audience with greater respect but lacked coherence and depth. Tim Robbins took on a subject with much appeal, but in Bob Roberts, the results are fairly unstimulating, largely due to the film’s obvious prejudices.

The DVD:

Bob Roberts appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Is this the film’s original theatrical aspect ratio? I have no idea. According to IMDB, the movie’s theatrical dimensions were 1.85:1. However, its initial laserdisc appearance was allegedly framed at 1.50:1, while a later Pioneer Special Edition release used “unmatted” 1.33:1. Is this truly an open-matte affair? Perhaps, but I thought the edges seemed cramped at times. However, I must note that the documentary film-style doesn’t lend itself to neatly composed images; as such, the awkward framing may result from this technique more than from a cropped presentation.

In any case, the picture generally looked quite good. Sharpness seemed largely accurate and well-defined. A few times I felt that the picture appeared somewhat less crisp and detailed than it should, but these occasions were rare. Moiré effects occasionally caused some concerns, mainly through shimmering that occurred in window blinds and in sides of buildings. Print flaws appeared minor. I saw light grain at times, some mild speckling plus a few thin vertical lines and a couple of nicks, but the film seemed free of more severe defects like scratches, tears or large debris.

Overall, colors looked clear and solid. The movie used a realistic palette that came across as very true and natural, with no signs of concerns related to any hues. Black levels were a tad on the flat and gray side, however, and contrast was mildly weak. Shadow detail could appear a little too thick, which rendered low-light sequences somewhat darker and more bland than they should have looked. Bob Roberts is an inexpensive film that was shot in a documentary fashion; don’t expect a polished, glossy product. Nonetheless, I found the movie to boast a generally satisfying image.

In regard to the Dolby Surround soundtrack of Bob Roberts, it also seemed lackluster but satisfactory. One wouldn’t expect a broad and engaging soundfield from this sort of work, and one would be correct in that assumption. The audio stayed very close to the center channel, with only mild breadth appearing in a few sequences. When crowds were involved, the image spread nicely to the sides and to the rear, and the many songs heard in the film featured fine stereo sound which also was bolstered by the surrounds.

Audio quality seemed similarly good. Dialogue always appeared clear and accurate, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were respectably realistic and clean. I’d think that very little re-recording of effects occurred and that the vast majority of the audio came from the set. As such, the noises seemed acceptably solid. Music offered the highlights of the sound, as the many tunes played by Bob appeared warm and bright. At its best, the movie presented some nice dynamics and depth; the highlight had to be Bob’s “Wall Street Rap”, which echoed neatly to the rears and featured some decent bass. What can I say? It ain’t Saving Private Ryan, but the audio appropriately supports the film, and that’s what it’s supposed to do, so I was satisfied with what I heard.

Bob Roberts includes three full audio commentaries, two of which involve director/star Tim Robbins. The first of these features Robbins essentially on his own, though I heard producer Forrest Murray (I think - the person's unnamed) chime in on a couple of occasions. For the most part, this track seemed fairly dull. Robbins suffered from a bad case of Farrelly disease: as with the brothers whose commentary for Kingpin remains one of the worst ever, Robbins devotes far too many of his remarks to simply explaining the onscreen action or identifying participants. Robbins also tosses in some information about the production such as locations, references and his intentions as a filmmaker, but it’s a fairly flat commentary that didn’t give me a lot of insight into the film.

As I listened to the track, I worked hard to puzzle out when it was recorded. Initially I’d assumed it was taped recently, but it soon became clear this was not correct. From what I can tell, I believe it was created mid-1993. Robbins refers to political administrations in a way that makes me think Bush just recently left office and Clinton hadn’t had much time to do anything yet. Robbins also makes a comment about an unnamed actor who made a film that Robbins felt glorified the mob mentality although the movie was celebrated as an anti-violent statement; I’d be surprised if this wasn’t a reference to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. (For the record, when I discovered the 1994 release of the Pioneer Special Edition LD, that sealed the deal on this track’s vintage. Granted, I don’t know if it was taped in 1994 or 1993, but at least the time frame seems generally consistent with my thoughts.)

No similar questions occur in regard to the DVD’s second commentary; at the very start, Robbins indicates that he taped it in December 1999. This one’s billed as a track with Robbins and Gore Vidal, but it strongly favors the director. The two men were recorded separately and their remarks were edited together. Vidal doesn’t even enter the proceedings until after the beauty pageant scene; we first hear from him at the 39-minute mark.

Overall, the track seems somewhat more compelling than Robbins’ older one. Some of the information is redundant, but Robbins chimes in with a fair amount of unique data, and Vidal’s presence helps a lot; he offers a few good stories and reflections that add interest to the package. Vidal becomes a much stronger factor toward the end of the film, and that’s where his observations are most compelling. Robbins seems less snotty this time around - he was much more negative about various political factions on the first track - and though I didn’t think it was a great commentary, I thought it provided a fairly interesting listen.

In addition, we find a third audio commentary on the Bob Roberts DVD. Thankfully, this one doesn’t involve Robbins. Instead, we find political editors Alex Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. Unlike the prior two tracks, this commentary isn’t screen-specific; in fact, it has virtually nothing to do with the film itself. Instead, Cockburn and St. Clair recount a history of the CIA’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking and the routing of funds to the Contras in Nicaragua. The track offers an interesting perspective on this side of modern history. Frankly, I’m not knowledgeable enough about the subject to consider the truth in their narrative, but it makes for a solid and compelling listen.

One annoyance about the final audio commentary: for reasons I can’t figure, Cockburn and St. Clair are periodically interrupted by various Bob songs. This seems to be a vague attempt to present an isolated score for those tunes, but it seems pointless just because the audio doesn’t differ at all from the way it sounds during the full movie; no dialogue or effects have been removed from the songs to present them on their own. As such, we could easily hear the tunes in exactly the same manner just by accessing those scenes. That’d be preferable because the interruptions during the commentary are quite jarring; occasionally St. Clair and Cockburn are halted mid-thought by a song, and it gets annoying.

In addition to these commentaries, we find a slew of other features on the Bob Roberts DVD. In the “Deleted Scenes” area we get 17 excised segments. These run as one whole piece which lasts 21 minutes and 35 seconds; unfortunately, you can’t access different scenes through chapter stops. Overall, the clips were pretty interesting and made for a compelling experience.

“Photos” includes 79 different shots from the production. Most of these are candid pictures of the actors at work. Surprisingly, they’re generally pretty interesting. We get some good images of isolated parts of the movie, like campaign stops and TV appearances, and they’re a lot of fun.

“Music Videos” presents the clips for three songs: “Wall Street Rap”, “I Want to Live” and “Drugs Stink”. These segments in no way differ from the pieces seen within the movie itself; all this feature does is jump right to them for you.

“Staff” includes a slew of cast and crew biographies. We get listings for actors Robbins, Brian Murray, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, Gore Vidal, Ray Wise, Rebecca Jenkins, John Ottavito, Harry Lennix and Robert Stanton, plus executive producers Tim Bevan, Paul Webster and Ronna B. Wallace, producer Forrest Murray, cinematographer Jean Lapine, composer David Robbins, editor Lisa Chirgin, and production designer Richard Hoover. These entries provide basic but fairly solid biographies and filmographies of all involved.

More text appears in “Campaign Notes”, where we find some surprisingly extensive and interesting production notes about the film. Finally, the “Media” section supplies the movie’s theatrical trailer plus two TV spots. The DVD’s booklet also includes some rather brief but mildly decent notes about the songs used in Bob Roberts.

Although I usually don’t comment on DVD menus just because I honestly couldn’t care less about them, I am partial to those of BR. They used creative names for different areas but didn’t give them such goofy appellations that we can’t easily understand them. To run the movie, you click “Documentary”, while the chapter listings are in “Timeline” and the extras appear under “Election Coverage”. The different sections fit in neatly within the election format, and we see lots of neat items like album covers and campaign materials. The chapters use a fun newspaper headline format as well. It’s a creative and effective but unobtrusive way to present the menus, and they work tremendously well.

Too bad the movie itself is such a mixed bag. Bob Roberts had serious potential but it’s told in such a heavy-handed and smarmy manner that I never found it particularly compelling or insightful. The DVD presents solid but unspectacular picture and sound plus a slew of fine extras. For already-established fans of the movie, this DVD would make a fine purchase, but others should give it a rental first; I didn’t much care for the film, but it’s a strong DVD that may appeal more to others.

Support DVD Movie Guide, visit our sponsors.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top