Embedded: Tim Robbins’s Play on Iraq (8/29/05)

“I think that if you believe something, and you have an opportunity in a free society to express it, then isn’t that your responsibility as a citizen? If you’re an artist, a writer, an actor, isn’t that part of the deal? When the attacks started on my patriotism, that’s when I went into high gear.”

Actor-director-writer Robbins has been called a lot of things since he and his partner actress Susan Sarandon, lent their voices the growing movement against the war in Iraq which will bring protesters to Washington, D.C. September 24-6. The mobilization sponsored by United for Peace and Justice includes a march, a free concert with musicians including Steve Earle, a “tent revival” emceed by Danny Glover, congressional lobbying and non-violent direct action.

But meanwhile, on September 9th at 1:30 pm. and September 21 at 9 pm you can catch Embedded/Live, a film version of Robbins’ play that premiered last year at the Public Theater and did a touring company on the Sundance Channel (which also brings us an hour of Al Franken’s Air America radio program weekday evenings starting at 11:30 p.m.)

“In May of 2003, says Robbins, “I decided to focus my frustration and anger, taking my pile of collected articles and scribbled notes, to try to tell the story of our reckless neo-conservative administration’s march to war, of the unmitigated failure of our press — some who acted more like courtesans than journalists — and also of the tragedy that results when young men and women are asked to engage violently with strangers in a hostile land.”

The play is performed by the Actors’ Gang, a group Robbins founded with a group of drama buddies from UCLA in 1981, years before he became a movie star. They modeled their edgy agitprop aesthetic on the in-your-face antics of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and shared what Robbins calls a “punk-rock sensibility.” (Robbins dedicated the play to The Clash’s late Joe Strummer.)

Robbins has channeled his ire into a smart, screwball and chilling comedy, dramatizing the embedding of news media with military forces during the invasion of “Gomorrah,” an oil-rich rogue state ruled by the “Butcher of Babylon.” Only some reporters struggle with their armed hosts to get some truth out for the people back home. The episodic sketches mix with old film clips, hazy scenes from backstage as the actors move about and shots of amused theater patrons.

Robbins shows genuine sympathy for the journalists and saves his ample scorn for the government leaders whose shifting rationales leading up to the invasion. The play’s comic stroke of genius is a masked chorus called “The Cabal,” the policy advisers and analysts in the Pentagon’s “Office of Special Plans” – – with names like Rum-Rum, Pearly White, Woof, Gondola, Cove and Dick. They sneer at reports of swelling peace marches, consult their Palm Pilots to find the best date to launch the invasion (“If we don’t get this war started soon, we’re going to have to compete with the NBA playoffs”) and recite a litany of excuses for why none of them ever served in the armed forces.

The play is inventive and robust from start to finish, but suffers from the awkward process of filming live drama. But that’s a small quibble. Since I didn’t see the stage performance, I’m glad Sundance affords me the opportunity of at least getting the gist of the play. And if you don’t have access to cable, you can rent the DVD from Netflix or buy it at the official site, which is also chock-full of background information and links to learn more about the war.

You can read Tim Robbins account of his production at Huffington Post. To read more about the mobilization, see my Entry for August 24, 2005 and go to United for Peace & Justice.

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