Letter of Loathing To Tim Robbins

Dear Mr. Robbins,

I’ve never written to a movie star before-least of all to one who cares as much as you. That I have contempt in my heart for you disturbs me more than you will at first appreciate.

Make no mistake about my feelings. Your feeble political satire about the war in Iraq, Embedded , which you’ve also directed at the Public, has been dressed up as a revolutionary statement. Enough is enough. I usually strain to be polite, but there will be no apologies from me this time. I’m no political animal, but I know smugness when I see it, and I know bad theater when I see it. Smugness is your calling card in the name of “caring,” and I’m left with hate for soft pundits like you and your kind. Your liberal, caring , Hollywood kind, posing as some sort of risk-taking renegade between making movies.

“Oh, here we go!” Is that what you’re thinking, Mr. Robbins? Then let me make my dislike for you clear. It’s something at least for me to be grateful for. It sustains me in my anger.

Will it surprise you if I say that, like you, I’m outraged at being misled by lying politicians? Like you, I opposed the war in Iraq. You are not unique, Mr. Robbins. I’m sorry if you and your wife feel persecuted for your views. But let’s not make out a case for Amnesty.

You have yet to be thrown into a gulag. Put it this way: How much did you really suffer when the Baseball Hall of Fame canceled the 15th-anniversary celebration of Bill Durham -the movie in which you starred-because of your “unpatriotic” opposition to the war? Come on! It’s a baseball movie ! The Hall of Fame’s farcical response to you was a perfect example of the stupidity of warmongering American righteousness, not a reason for your preening martyrdom.

Saint Robbins! Wasn’t that you-our rebel voice of principled protest-on smarmy best behavior accepting your glittering Academy Award in craven silence about the war? You and that other uncompromising hero of the antiwar movement, Sean Penn. Our brave, golden heroes! Now eagerly co-opted by the System for a bauble, timid and mute as collaborators, maimed by voluntary self-censorship for the occasion .

Mr. Robbins-a word in your ear, not that you’ll listen. You are deaf to all criticism. You must be. How else to explain the sophomoric wankery of your “scathing” political satire at the Public?

If you wanted the conservative right to have yet more reason to patronize the left, Embedded has offered it up on a plate with all the trimmings. Your simple-minded satire of Mr. Bush and Co. can only be enjoyed by a choir of your fawning groupies who want to be told what they already know and think.

God forbid you-or anyone else-should have the theater in uproar or even honest debate. But wait! Embedded has scarcely begun when a sanctimonious announcement is made, dripping with obvious irony:

“You have every right to express your opinion, but don’t get your feelings hurt if we make you express them outside. A special area has been set up for your convenience. It is behind the orange cones at the corner of Sixth Street and Avenue D. You can say whatever you want to there. Don’t blame us. This is the age where an institution’s First Amendment rights supersede the individual’s. If you don’t like it, move to Iran. We’re not fucking around. If you don’t like it, get the fuck out and don’t expect your money back.”

The self-consciously hip tone is established, all right. The accompanying blast of rock music promises a throwback to Vietnam-era protest. But what follows wouldn’t disturb a mouse. There’s nothing to shake us up, nothing for anyone to oppose -nothing except the gloating of a mediocre mind.

Mr. Robbins, you’ve given us little more than pandering political correctness about the American soldiers in Iraq, and a sloppy version of a second-rate Saturday Night Live sketch.

Your hack send-up of W.’s cabal of advisers, with names like Rum-Rum, Gondola and Dick, is astonishingly juvenile. (Oooh! Lot of laughs with Dick.) You’ve got them wearing pseudo-sinister half-masks as if this is Brecht! God love us, old Bertolt must be spinning in his grave.

Your drill sergeant who’s a showbiz queen was first done better by Monty Python a million years ago. Your heavily ironic hymns to the neoconservative guru, Leo Strauss, are humorless. Your lengthy saga about the government propaganda machine exploiting an injured soldier named Private Ryan is, of course, a tired retread of the well-known story of Private Jessica Lynch.

Give us one line, one moment, one single fresh thought to equal “I love the smell of napalm in the morning …. ”

How many real war reporters have you ever talked to, Mr. Robbins? Your embedded, censored dopes in Iraq are simply, laboriously ludicrous.

Your soldiers are all sentimentalized Americans out of Central Casting: noble men and women, Simple Folk writing simple, heartfelt letters to the Simple Folk back home. They’re Americans we can be proud of, Americans we can feel for in the midst of this phony war re-created for our knowing pleasure by the Actors’ Gang, all the way from Los Angeles.

Oh, the horror, the horror.

How I loathed the lame dishonesty of it all. Don’t you know that you haven’t risked one damn thing the entire evening? Don’t you know you’ve created nothing that’s remotely challenging or even new? No, that’s too much to ask. You feel good about it, don’t you? Good and virtuous .

Whereas you’ve utterly capitulated to nice, safe bourgeois theatrical taste, where no harm is possible and no outrage ever provoked. Your notion of biting satire is just another smug orthodoxy that won’t even outlive my dismay. If you were doing anything different, the sound of boos and the slamming of upturned seats would be music to our ears. But it isn’t happening, is it? Nor can it happen.

Authentic satire is never safe , and real polemicists do not have clean hands. Have you read Swift lately? Jonathan Swift’s 1729 “A Modest Proposal” is the satirical model that demolishes the cant of all politicians. His famous proposal-modestly and eloquently put-was to cure the burden of impoverished children by eating them.

“I have been assured,” Swift wrote, “by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragout.”

He goes on sensibly, “A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.”

Furthermore,asthewell-researched Swift thoughtfully pointed out, there would be certain nutritional benefits, extra revenue for the city of Dublin, and no child would ever starve for lack of work or parental love.

Today, perhaps nothing can be satirized when everything already appears to be satire. Who can exaggerate the Orwellian arrogance of that convoluted tortured thing , Donald Rumsfeld, better than he? How to send up a dimwit President cracking bad jokes about not finding nuclear weapons when he’s written the script himself?

But a difference can be made, and theater itself first functioned in the 20’s and 30’s as an overnight, living newspaper urgently hitting the streets with the news. It is why tyrants close theaters down in a political crisis, or censor them.

Who would trouble to censor Embedded at the Public? Who is it actually upsetting? But give us a Swiftian bruised heart and soul crying out at the mortal blunders of lying politicians, and we will see a difference. Give us whirlwinds and uproar and aliveness at the theater, and we will be there cheering.

But not for you, Mr. Robbins, glibly slumming it at the Public with your tasteful, dead, second-rate work. It is the moral duty of radical protest to goad and provoke and insult. But you have left me only in despair at the timid political bankruptcy of theater. I’m in despair that theater-mirror and eternal conscience of the world-will ever convey the spirit of true opposition in America, let alone outrage at the weary, unacceptable mess of the world.

Which is why you leave me with such anger, burning.

Yours sincerely,

John Heilpern Letter of Loathing To Tim Robbins