NEW YORK - Tim Robbins may be many things - an accomplished and versatile actor, a film director of intellectual and emotional depth, a man of puckish wit and fierce intelligence - but nobody could accuse him of being subtle in his political views.
He is an American lefty of the old school who abhors big-money politics, trenchantly defends the right to free speech and voices frequent suspicion of America's overseas entanglements. Naturally, he loathes the Bush administration, seeing the current White House as repressive and dishonest as well as politically misguided. He is not thrilled with the Democrats, either, having campaigned actively in 2000 for Ralph Nader's third-party candidacy. He and his equally strong-minded wife Susan Sarandon are unafraid to express their opinion on any and every occasion, and for that they are fêted as the darlings of the liberal left.
Not that there is anything wrong with any of that. Robbins would argue - and has, frequently - that in times like this it is not only the artist's right to speak out, but his duty. The problem, if there is one, lies in the way that his politics informs his work, as audiences and critics contemplating a trip to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith are about to find out for themselves.
Robbins' play Embedded, which opens on Tuesday, is an unapologetically crude attack on the Bush administration and the propaganda machine it mounted to help to wage the war in Iraq. Robbins himself, who threw the material together in a burst of inspiration last year, acknowledges that it is satire "ripped from the headlines" with no claim to subtlety or journalistic fairness.
Its ambition is not to be an unimpeachable piece of political analysis but rather to give audiences a sense of gleeful liberation - a chance to counter the doublespeak of the White House communications team with irreverence, ribaldry and broad-brush send-ups of even the grimmest of recent world events. Thus we see the plotting of the neo-conservative cabal in Washington (actors wearing masks of familiar Bush administration officials go by such names as Rum-Rum, Gondola and Woof), insisting that the invasion of the faraway land of Gomorrah has to be over before the annual basketball playoffs. On the battlefield, meanwhile, the overbearing Colonel Hardchannel tells journalists they are maggots and orders them to twist what they see to fit the official version.
When the play first opened in Los Angeles last autumn, it received mixed reviews at best. In New York, where it moved shortly afterwards, it was positively ripped to shreds. The New York Times said it was a tedious retread of well-worn lines and ideas. Newsday, the Long Island daily, called it an "agitprop cartoon" and did not use the term as a compliment. Most withering of all was the Associated Press, the US news wire of record, which commented: "Finding genuine wit in Embedded is as difficult as finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
Curiously, audiences did not agree. Or, if they did, they did not care, providing the show with packed houses wherever it went. Perhaps the audience saw things in the piece that the harsher critics did not. Or perhaps it just enjoyed the cathartic experience of seeing abuse hurled at its government after two solid years of unquestioning reverence for authority emanating from the major news networks.
The London run will therefore be an interesting test of the play's true worth. Since public discourse has been much freer in Britain, and criticism of both the Bush and the Blair governments more open and more vociferous, Embedded won't be addressing the same cathartic need. If he is lucky, Robbins will earn comparisons with Brecht or Dario Fo. If he is less lucky, he could just be dismissed as a sledgehammer-wielding bore.
He came to the combination of stage and politics early, attending anti-Vietnam War marches in the Sixties in New York City, where he grew up the son of Gil Robbins of the folk group The Highwaymen and magazine editor Mary Robbins. As teenagers, he and his sisters set up a an improvisational troupe that mounted such productions as a a satire on Watergate.
Robbins has continued mixing political convictions with his talents as an artist. All three films he has directed to date - Bob Roberts (1992), Dead Man Walking (1995) and Cradle Will Rock (1999) - are steeped in political concerns. How successful each of them is depends a lot on which critic you ask, but most would probably agree that the record is a little variable. Sometimes Robbins hits his satirical or emotional targets spot-on; at other times, he exposes himself to the accusation of being crude and just a little obvious.
Bob Roberts was the most self-consciously slapstick of the three - a spoof documentary charting the Senate campaign of a young conservative folk singer who sells himself as the anti-Bob Dylan. Roberts professes to loathe the Sixties and everything that decade's counterculture stood for. The joke at the heart of the film, though, is that he does not oppose Dylan so much as rip him off shamelessly. (His pet slogan: "The times they are a-changin' back!") Slowly, he is revealed as a con artist of the highest order, who steals slogans, video gimmicks and, ultimately, the election itself.
Not everyone loves Bob Roberts, because the film cannot disguise its political sympathies, but at least the protagonist is a complicated rogue. Robbins himself took the lead role, giving the character a memorably mischievous charm that guaranteed he could not be dismissed as a mere cypher.
Complexities of character and moral viewpoint came more saliently into focus in Dead Man Walking, a death penalty movie that earned widespread praise and awards because of its refusal to hand out easy judgments. Sister Helen Prejean, the crusading nun played by Sarandon, is as interested in saving the soul of Sean Penn's convicted murderer as she is in condemning his capital sentence. Penn's character has to come to terms with his actions, and the relatives of his victims have to come to terms with their boundless rage. If this is Robbins' best film, it is because political point-scoring is entirely absent.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of Cradle Will Rock, the most ambitious film of the three - a giant, multi-character fresco of Depression-era America, in which art and political ideas are sent hurtling on a collision course. We see idealists putting on politically committed plays with federal money while conservative spies seek evidence of "un-American" sympathies. And, at the center of the film, we see a young Orson Welles leading a small insurrection of theatre players and audience members shut out of their original venue and improvising in a new setting for the first night of a socially progressive musical.
Somehow, despite this rich premise, Robbins loses his sense of humor and his subtle insight into his characters. The socialists are good, their nemeses bad, and Orson Welles - to whom Robbins was once flatteringly compared - comes across as a brattish charlatan. As one critic, Charles Taylor of Salon.com, pointed out at the time of its release, Cradle Will Rock contains scenes "of such didactic condescension that it feels as if someone is shoving a pamphlet into your hand".
It's hard to know quite what happened, except to observe that Robbins' politics have become more strident as his profile has risen. Nobody can fault his track record as an actor, from the baseball comedy Bull Durham (1988), to his smarmy Hollywood producer in Robert Altman's The Player (1992), to his Oscar-winning turn as a disturbed survivor of childhood trauma in last year's Mystic River.
Off screen, meanwhile, the politics have played a larger role. At the 1993 Oscars, he and Sarandon took advantage of a co-presenter slot to draw attention to the plight of Haitian refugees with Aids interned at Guantanamo Bay. The waves from that public protest were nothing compared with the furore created by Robbins' support of the Nader campaign in 2000, coming under bitter attack after it transpired that Nader's votes in Florida and New Hampshire may have denied Al Gore the keys to the White House. Robbins responded that it was more important for him to follow his conscience than to vote strategically.
The Bush presidency has made activism something close to a second career. He and Sarandon are frequent guests on the political dinner circuit, and have put in appearances at many anti-war rallies around the country. Nothing, though, has had the galvanizing effect of a decision by the Baseball Hall of Fame to cancel a 15th anniversary screening of Bull Durham last year because of its stars' political visibility. The president of the Hall of Fame said the couple's opposition to the Iraq war was putting US troops in danger. To which Robbins responded: "You invoke patriotism and use words like freedom in an attempt to intimidate and bully. In doing so, you dishonor the words patriotism and freedom and dishonor the men and women who have fought wars to keep this nation a place where one can freely express one's opinion without fear of reprisal or punishment."
These were calculatedly heroic words, and Robbins followed them up with a widely read address to the National Press Club in Washington in which he denounced the intimidation felt by many dissenting actors and entertainers and accused the Bush administration of compromising US democracy with "fear and hatred".
Robbins suggested he was a big enough star to be able to speak out without risk to his career but that others were too afraid to stand up and be counted. No doubt some of the same messianic zeal in his speech informed his writing of Embedded. No one doubts the sincerity of the enterprise; the unanswered question is whether it also makes for good theatre.
A LIFE IN BRIEF
Born: 16 October 1958 in West Covina, California, the youngest of four children. His father, Gil Robbins, was a member of the folk ensemble the Highwaymen. His mother, Mary Robbins, was a musician and magazine editor.
Family: With Susan Sarandon since 1988. They have two children, Miles and Jack.
Education: Brought up largely in New York, he joined an avant garde acting troupe at the age of 12. Graduated in theatre studies from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Career: Co-founder of the Actors' Gang theatre troupe. Film acting highlights include Bull Durham (1988), The Player (1992, Best Actor prize at Cannes), Short Cuts (1993), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Mystic River (2003, Best Supporting Actor Oscar). Directed Bob Roberts (1992), Dead Man Walking (1995) and Cradle Will Rock (1999).
He says...: "Freedom of speech starts with you opening your mouth, and people often abdicate that freedom in their mind. They choose not to speak. Once you choose not to speak, you might as well not have it."
They say...: "Is there anyone in the movies whose talent is more screwed up by his politics than Tim Robbins?" - Charles Taylor, Salon.com
© 2004 Independent/UK