CRADLE WILL ROCK Send This Review to a Friend
Hurrah for Tim Robbins. There's nothing timid about Tim, the writer-director of "Cradle Will Rock," another step toward recognition of him as an accomplished as a filmmaker on the heels of his earlier well-established reputation as a charismatic actor. Robbins, who previously wrote and directed "Dead Man Walking," has boldly done nothing less than attempt to find the pulse of America's 1930s intellectual life, struggles for free artistic expression and battles against exploitation by big business, as well as tap into the feeling of Depression-ridden America and get a fix on various international notables on the eve of World War II. Tall order? You bet. The impressionistic pastiche that Robbins creates sometimes soars and sometimes stumbles. But overall the effort is enjoyably ambitious.
The story is built around a legendary triumph over artistic repression. Marc Blitztein's working-class opera extolling labor over capital was all set to be staged by director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman as part of the Federal Theater program under the government's efforts to solve unemployment problems and enhance artistic creativity. But the Red-baited project became controversial, and the plug was pulled. Not only was the opera opening cancelled, but actors were forbidden to take part in any attempt to stage it. But a new theater was found at the last moment, with Blitzstein scheduled to play the score on a piano and enact the whole show himself. The cast marched to the theater, became part of the audience and spontaneously, one by one, stood up and did their parts from their seats. The defiant performance became a great moment in the theater.
That episode is the framework. Robbins has woven around it a broad canvass of real events and personalities of the time. Artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) comes to New York to paint his controversial mural at Rockefeller Center, where Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) orders it destroyed. We meet such notables as Mussolini's former mistress Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter) courageous WPA Theater head Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), Berthold Brecht (Steven Skybell), Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins (Bob Balaban), Congressional witch-hunter Martin Dies (Harris Yulin), and of course, Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria). Real-life characters are mixed with composite fictional characters. Philip Baker Hall plays a corporate tycoon named Grey Mathers, and Vanessa Redgrave has a showy role as his wife, Countess La Grange.
Some of the performances are particularly good, such as Emily Watson as the poverty-stricken aspiring actress Olive Stanton. But Angus MacFadyen plays Orson Welles in an utterly ridiculous fashion, and the same can be said for Cary Elwes's John Houseman and for the rendering of Hearst's mistress Marion Davies into a non-entity, played by Gretchen Mol. On the other hand, Bill Murray is brilliant as a vaudeville ventriloquist whose political views are torn asunder as his mental turmoil is expressed through a needling challenge by his dummy.
The production design, costumes and music contribute importantly to picking up the beat of the period, as does the excellent cinematography. Most of all, this unusual film digs passionately into a chapter of American history, with obvious relevance for today, when free artistic expression is often challenged, as exemplified by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's recent assault on the Brooklyn Museum. Whatever its flaws, "Cradle Will Rock" is a wildly ambitious and enjoyable entertainment with a social conscience. A Touchstone Pictures release.