In 1930s New York Orson Welles tries to stage a musical on a steel strike under the Federal Theater Program despite pressure from an establishment fearful of industrial unrest and red activity. Meanwhile Nelson Rockefeller gets the foyer of his company headquarters decorated and an Italian countess sells paintings for Mussolini. Written by
In the opening exterior NYC street sequence following Olive, just as John Turturro's credit is supered, a window mounted air conditioner is visible in the alleyway behind. While home air conditioning was introduced in 1928, it was extremely rare until after World War II, and it's not clear the design shown was available at the time. See more »
Tim Robbins is a good actor. Not great, but it is clear in his acting that he has a passion for the theater. Now he has written and directed something that elevates him to world class.
The simple first: Tim has learned from Altman how to make a camera move in such a way that the viewer becomes part of the action. Some of his long, multithreaded action shots are breathtaking. More, this is used to tie together dual threads and multiple stories. Altman again, but even Altman is inconsistent in this.
But Tim can do something Altman cannot. He tunes this ensemble so tightly it seems that they are siblings. Many individual performances deeply charm, reach high.
That alone makes this a must see. But there's more. This is yet another play about a play, a common enough genre that has a very specific set of pitfalls. Robbins the writer cleverly avoids this with a facile trick. Uncareful viewers will see this as a simple, left-leaning story about artistic McCarthyism (Jesse Helms anyone?). But that is a ruse. The story is just the excuse.
Watch it again and look for why the play couldn't be put on. It was the unions, as much coopted by the system as Rockefeller that was the real threat and who the players defy at the end. This ahistorical fact was inserted for a reason.
Also watch for how the whole thing is nested in Faust, with a deeper recursive level with the players as the puppets in Faust. The puppet thing is worked a few other ways with Murray of course, but also so many others until we feel that the only non-puppets are the actors.
I think this is one of those cases where Robbins exceeded his own intellect, but it still works as a deeply recursive self examination, even of itself, because he trusted his instincts as dramatist (and presumably the actors' instincts as well).
I rate this high for intelligence. It achieves what Altman has not. Some seem to object that some of the characters are silly: Wells and Houseman and the Countess. But this is deliberate. They are playing players IN A PLAY. That's the point. Perhaps it would have been better to not use historical names since it confuses people who might look for accuracy.
Some misgivings though. Sarandon's performance was the weakest. Cinematically, the crushing of the mural during the performance was blunt editing. The pacing was off -- it should have been better integrated with the pacing of the play's action. The transposition of the dummy to modern Broadway was radically less subtle than the dummy theme's life in the rest of the play. If you didn't tease it out early, you'd be confused.
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