The '30s may have been the '60s without marijuana and rock-and-roll. Plenty of tumult and tear gas, sex everywhere, enough anger to start either a revolution or a repression, but instead of grass they had hooch and instead of rock they had theater.
That's very much the spirit of Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock," which masquerades as a re-creation of history but is really an homage to Zeitgeist, facts be damned. It recounts, among other prototypical '30s events, the famous imbroglio over the Federal Theater Project's efforts to close down its own production of Marc Blitzstein's neo-Brechtian agitprop musical "The Cradle Will Rock" in 1936, under the directorship of the protean young Orson Welles.
This was a great brouhaha, inciting rads against cons, artists against philistines, genius against mediocrity, courage against cowardice, and, most importantly, the publicity-savvy against the publicity-impaired (no contest!).
But what is weirdly refreshing is that in most accounts, Welles is the hero, the prime mover, and that event is seen as one more step in the development of a genius on the road to "Citizen Kane." But here Welles is just one of the characters in a cavalcade, a hambone in the key of Very Loud, whose true commitment is not to Art but to Welles (evidently he thought they were the same thing). He's not the hero, he's the knave, though very well played by the Scots actor Angus Macfadyen.
The hero of the piece is really the Federal Theater Project's embattled head, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), a woman of both courage and vision, but also of practicality. Jones is brilliant as Flanagan and gets at something deep and impressive in the woman: She gives her that high Ivy League confidence in her calling and the character to labor hard and anonymously in the bureaucratic vineyards to make it happen. Cornered, she fights like a lion, yet she never gives up on her faith in the goodness of man and the power of theater to liberate.
And give Robbins some credit: While paying lip service to the leftist article of faith that the government "censored" the inflammatory musical, he acknowledges the other, duller possibility--that that production was one of many closed nationwide at various points in their gestation because of budgetary considerations, with no special consideration to political content. In any event, Welles and his partner in production and bickering John Houseman (played, very amusingly, by Cary Elwes with one of the those simpering, aristo middle European accents) saw an opportunity and went with it. They never passed up a chance to get about their real business, which was making the myth that was Orson Welles.
Here's what they did: They marched down Broadway with cast and audience to another, hastily rented theater, and performed the show in it. The actors, union members, were forbidden by union rule to go to the stage, so Blitzstein himself sat up there with an old piano, banging out the tunes, and the actors sat in the audience, following their cues and rising to take the spotlight as they spoke or sang. It may not have been great politics but it was definitely great guerrilla theater.
Robbins re-creates this event as the climax to his film, and it pulsates with energy, particularly with Hank Azaria's Blitzstein finding the courage to overcome his diffidence and take over the stage, and the others in the cast within the cast--Emily Watson, John Turturro, Jamey Sheridan--rising to join, while the audience gets with it in a big way. It's a tribal celebration of the power of theater.
Both alas and huzzah, that is not the only tale Robbins tells, though it is the central one. He is seeking a higher artistic truth, but he seeks it at the expense of a lesser factual one. Another story, involving the young Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) and his attempt to have the Mexican artist Diego Riviera (Ruben Blades) fabricate a mural for the lobby of Rockefeller Center, took place in the early '30s. And the investigation of Red influence in the Federal Theater Project by the Dies Committee didn't take place until 1938.
Robbins clearly thinks these three stories resonate more passionately when tripled like this. In fact, the opposite is true. The two lesser stories seem enervated and wan next to the explosive vapors of ego, passion, sex and ambition that swirl about "The Cradle Will Rock," particularly as he embellishes even more. The Rockefeller-Riviera imbroglio simply demonstrates the vast differences in perception between titans of industry and art. Who didn't already know that? And the Red investigation tale is centered on Bill Murray as a wan drunken ventriloquist who doesn't think communists are funny. It, too, goes no place.
So "Cradle Will Rock" is left in mid-rock, as it were, its energy squandered, its sense of history confused, its sound and fury ultimately signifying nothing.
And one last weirdness goes without explanation: The musical was called "The Cradle Will Rock" and the movie is called "Cradle Will Rock." Come back, little "the," wherever you are.
Cradle Will Rock (133 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual content.