Tim Robbins is a talented actor and an interesting director: in Cradle Will Rock he expends a lot of energy trying to make it look like the best Robert Altman film Robert Altman never made, and, superficially at least, he succeeds. Cradle Will Rock offers a fresco of late ‘30s culture revolving around the Federal Theatre Project, part of FDR’s colossal federal works scheme, and the efforts of Mark Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) to construct a genuinely American and radical kind of musical theatre in his pro-union show “The Cradle Will Rock”. Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen) and John Houseman (Cary Elwes) agree to stage the show as a follow-up to their hit all-Black Macbeth, but increasing agitation of the politicisation of the Federal Theatre sees the Project’s idealistic but tough manager Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) failing to fend off cutbacks and censure, and the premiere of “The Cradle Will Rock” is cancelled, the theatre sealed off by soldiers, no less. But the wit and will of the cast and hands still manage to give the work an heroic presentation.
Robbins weaves into this (mostly) true story various sub-plots: starving singer Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) gets a job first as a stagehand and then a part in the show; Joan Cusack’s mousy anti-communist Hazel Huffman testifies to a scalp-hunting senate committee, drawing bitchy ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray) in her wake, suppressing his own radical past in his attempt to make her; Vanessa Redgrave’s society matron Constance LaGrange supports the players despite the fact her magnate husband Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) is doing business with Italian fascists; and Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) contends with Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) in the infamous incident of his mural for the Rockefeller Centre, tackled again not three years later in Frida. This latter aspect is Robbins’ largest overt conceit, for “The Cradle Will Rock” was staged in 1937 and Rivera’s mural destroyed in 1933.
This is not, clearly, to be taken as accurate, or even especially deep portraiture of some awesome cultural figures. There’s a certain broad amusement to be had in its impolite sketches, like the constantly quarrelling Welles and Houseman, but it offers no real insight into their personalities. Robbins tips his hat to many of the artistic modes the narrative encompasses: a mural structure a la Rivera; Wellesian tracking shots; touches reminiscent of Upton Sinclair (in Constance's subplot); narrative quotes from the era's showbiz films like 42nd Street and screwball; sequences in which Blitzstein’s exhaustion and grief-stricken imagination conjures scenes from his show out of his surrounds, making choruses out of jailed protestors; and broad agitprop moments, like when Crickshaw gives into his impulses and has his dummy sing “The Internationale”. But this doesn’t entirely excuse Robbins’ tendency to hector, building to a ludicrous scene in which Rockefeller and his fellow capitalist heavies conspire to replace political art with the cool ambiguity of abstract impressionism, whilst dressed up as French courtiers of just before the revolution.
Such heavy-handedness, and dubious historical and artistic theory, kind of makes you think Rockefeller had a point about keeping art and politics separate, which isn’t supposed to be the idea. Like Blitzstein's, Robbins’ ideass aren’t all that particularly interesting, certainly not in comparison to their shared, urgent desire to put them over through dynamically involving art, and Citizen Kane is a far more profound study of the split character of pre-WW2 America, for all the patronisation of Welles as a drunken playboy. Still, it’s a film big-hearted enough to get a thrill out of the scene in which Rivera, Rockefeller, Frida Kahlo and sundry models dance in careless joy, and give even its rat-fink anti-heroine a happy fadeout. The whole movie has a vibrant and spirited humour that renders easily forgivable the caricatures and catechisms by the time the climactic performance of the show rolls around, the cast getting around their being banned to act in it by their union by doing the whole thing from the theatre seats and Blitzstein hammering it out on his piano. At its best, Cradle Will Rock is a hymn to human creative and communal energy. At its worst, it's a self-impressed poseur's conceit. Orson Welles may well have understood.