"Cradle Will Rock" is actor Tim Robbins' third outing as a director, following the funny but unsubtle political satire "Bob Roberts" and the multilayered meditation on capital punishment "Dead Man Walking." This time Robbins is wildly ambitious, offering a 1930s comedy/drama that's based on a true story and packed with a cavalcade of historical figures. Orson Welles, John Houseman, Nelson Rockefeller, the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and other characters mix and mingle with one another and with fictitious creations.
Robbins displays an earnest interest in telling the story of the attempted shutdown of "The Cradle Will Rock," a prounion play funded by the Federal Theatre Project. Despite (or maybe because of) the director/writer's passion, the results are noisy and wildly uneven. Robbins, who typically wears his politics on his sleeve, comes off in his presentation of this piece of history as an eager, morally indignant distributor of a didactic leaflet. By way of his framework, he insists that the survival of the First Amendment was on the line and that censorship was the issue, only tangentially hinting at the reality that the budget-cutting ax fell on numerous FTP productions at the time, regardless of political stripe.
Robbins might be taken to task for the needlessly unflattering portrayals of Houseman (Cary Elwes), the play's producer, and Welles (Angus MacFadyen), the production's 21-year-old director (and the genius who would go on to create such cinematic classics as Citizen Kane). The former is presented as a pampered snob, while the latter is painted -- in ever-broader strokes -- as an alcoholic parasite, stuffed full of himself. Considering that the production never would have gotten off the ground without their leadership, why the nasty character attacks?
Historians might have a bone to pick over the movie's juggling of chronology. The play came together in 1937. Rockefeller (John Cusack) actually commissioned Rivera's (Ruben Blades) controversial mural four years earlier. Another key subplot involving the appearance of FTP head Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) before the House Un-American Activities Committee actually transpired in 1938.
To Robbins' credit, "Cradle Will Rock" (the "The" has been dropped for no apparent reason) is bolstered by an appealing show-must-go-on buzz and a variety of impressively orchestrated scenes. Hank Azaria is compelling as the tortured playwright Marc Blitzstein, while Emily Watson is effective as the waifish rookie thespian unexpectedly cast in the lead, and John Turturro is typically excellent as a dedicated actor and family man whose conscience won't let him accept money from his family.
Also impressive are Susan Sarandon as an Italian-born writer feeding the Mussolini propaganda machine, Vanessa Redgrave as a wealthy arts patron and Bill Murray as a washed-up ventriloquist. With a more deft touch, all these elements could have added up to something more satisfying.