Here’s a conspiracy theory for you: Could Tim Robbins, one of Hollywood’s famous firebrand liberals, actually be a secret agent for the conservative movement? So one might reasonably conclude after a visit to “Embedded,” Robbins’ dismayingly toothless satire of the Bush administration’s methods and manners in mounting the invasion of Iraq. This agit-prop revue, written and directed by the Oscar-winning actor, is so stale and ineffective that it threatens to make the reasoned criticisms of the war on which it is based seem sophomoric or simplistic.
To be fair, it’s possible that at least some of the material was fresher when first presented in Los Angeles last fall by Robbins’ Actors’ Gang troupe. (They’re reprising their roles here.) And most would agree that the more extreme aspects of the Bush administration’s cynical manipulation of the media before, during and after the war are simply beyond parody. The stage-managing of the rescue of Jessica Lynch, designed to stoke easy emotional responses and flag-waving celebrations, is an obvious case in point.
But none of the material here has any lasting satirical sting. Although her name has been changed, the details of Private Lynch’s ordeal, for example, are pretty much depicted here as they actually unfolded, right down to the reading of CBS’ now-infamous letter laying out the possibilities for cross-media exploitation of her misfortune. Throughout the show’s 90-minute running time, there is little evidence of a transforming comic imagination being brought to bear on the events in question. Aside from a few random potshots — a bullying general putting journalists through boot camp reveals a bizarre affection for Broadway musicals — the “fictionalized” presentation of the material is bland and lacking in insight.
Many of the journalist “embeds” are shown in a quasi-realistic manner, bonding over drinks and discussing the difficult position they’re put in as journalists given access to only one side of the story. “We are the first line of history,” says one earnestly. “If we don’t get it right, who will? Get different sources. Always question.” Counters another, “This is war, not a beat. They don’t ‘get’ the ‘independent’ thing’ when there’s so much death and noise all around.”
But the media’s lack of access to Iraqi sources and the army’s strict control of battlefield coverage are old stories. In the months since the fall of Baghdad, they have been widely disseminated in the media, as have the other critiques of the buildup and aftermath of the war that Robbins targets. And his attempts to sympathetically explore the experience of the troops — primarily through correspondence between soldiers and loved ones back home — are perfunctory indeed; more poignant and thoughtful accounts can be found in the journalistic venues Robbins so glibly denounces.
The most pointedly comic element in the show is a recurring segment in which actors don grotesque half-masks to represent Bush’s cabinet, cynically planning the war as a diversionary tactic to push big-business scandals off the front pages and further the nefarious ends of the conservative movement. But there’s little wit or sophistication in this ham-fisted business, either, as stand-ins for Condoleezza Rice (Gondola) and Donald Rumsfeld (Rum-Rum) and the rest chortle gleefully at their successful duping of the American public. Even the tartest lines — “If we don’t get this war started soon we’re going to be competing with the NBA playoffs” — have a familiar ring.
If Robbins were not a celebrated (and, of course, talented) actor, these limp musings on the Iraq war would hardly be gracing the stage of the Public Theater. But his attempt to exploit his fame to draw attention to ideas he believes in, while admirable in theory, may not be as productive as he thinks. With enemies like Robbins, right-wingers may not need any friends in Hollywood.