Cradle Will Rock
1999, R, 132 min. Directed by Tim Robbins. Starring Ruben Blades, Angus Macfadyen, Bill Murray, John Turturro, Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Redgrave, Cherry Jones, Hank Azaria, John Cusack, Emily Watson.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 21, 2000
What considerations, if any, do artists owe those who finance the production and display of their work? This is a big question with many intriguing subtleties that seem to be vanishing in a series of inane mud-wrestling matches between grandstanding pols and calculatedly “transgressive” artists who find endless creative inspiration in juxtapositions of religious imagery and bodily waste. But long before elephant-poo paintings became a cause célèbre, the same confluence of art, money, and politics animated a far more serious and far-reaching controversy. The time was 1937, when Congress used budget cuts and federal troops in an unprecedented effort to shut down Mark Blitzstein's pro-labor musical, The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles. Stranger still, Blitzstein's alleged piece of socialist agitprop was funded by the government itself through Franklin Roosevelt's Federal Theater Project. In a pivotal event in the history of both the theatre and civil liberties, the cast defied orders barring them from the stage by performing the play from the theatre's aisles and seats. Though one might expect the echt-liberal Robbins to concentrate solely on the gutsy thespians' principled civil disobedience, he instead uses his directorial soapbox for more ambitious ends. Broadening the story's scope to take in its entire historical context, he plays connect-the-dots between the theatrical flap and other contemporary interactions between art and big money. These range from the social arena (rich folks hoping to buy social cachet) to the military (Mussolini's selloff of Da Vincis and Modiglianis to finance his war effort). The big issue, which Robbins misses no chance to hammer home literally and metaphorically, is the myriad ways in which artists are led to “prostitute” their work. Some, like homeless would-be actress Olive Stanton (Watson) have only their self-respect to sell out. Others, like Blitzstein (Azaria) and socialist mural-painter Diego Rivera (Blades) have commodified their credibility to the point where even the appearance of compromise might jeopardize their entire careers. Rivera's archly choreographed dance of semi-accommodation with bigwig patron Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) features some of Robbins' sharpest, wittiest writing. And in one of several whimsical touches Robbins uses to avoid a preachy tone, Blitzstein is harangued while writing by an imaginary chorus of his late wife and a dour Bertolt Brecht. Despite juggling upward of a half dozen plotlines, Robbins generally maintains his focus -- largely because all of the stories deal in some way with the same artistic-integrity issue. For that very reason, Robbins' narrative sometimes feels a bit labored and arbitrary, despite his constant efforts to lighten things up. The overall effect, however, is both energizing and intellectually stimulating. Inspired by Robbins' obvious passion, many actors -- especially Jones as FTP director Hallie Flanagan and Turturro as a dirt-poor actor who risks his family's future to defy the government -- are at their absolute peak form. Redgrave, continuing to thrive in her recent specialty as a vivid supporting player, is enjoyable as a flaky society dame having a blast as a part-time social dissident. Robbins' hand may not be quite as rock-steady here as it was in Dead Man Walking, but Cradle Will Rock still commands respect as mainstream filmmaking with more of an agenda than just pimping cinematic junk food to the brain-dead masses. For that alone, its creator fully deserves to be rich and married to Susan Sarandon.