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Art and politics collide in 'Cradle'


Arizona Daily Wildcat

Joan Cusack and Bill Murray talk art and politics in Tim Robbin's "Cradle Will Rock."

By Graig Uhlin
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
January 21, 2000
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Critics have praised it. So did the people at the Cannes Film Festival. Thus, one might assume the Tim Robbins writing-directing effort "Cradle Will Rock," will never find an audience in the general public.

But this film about the 1930s theater world has all the makings of a crowd pleaser.

"Cradle Will Rock" addresses the collision between art and politics - the unavoidable intersection and resulting discord.

Robbins builds multiple story lines featuring a large cast - a trend popularized in recent movies like P.T. Anderson's "Magnolia."

The compound plots center around the production of the film's namesake, a Marc Blitzstein play actually written in the 1930s.

The Federal Theater Project, a division of the Roosevelt's Works Project Administration, gives the questionably sane Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) the opportunity to put on his play "Cradle Will Rock."

But the production's fate walks a dangerous line when the government shuts down the theater.

The play's producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and director Orson Welles (a loud, annoying Angus MacFadyen) are in the wake of this calamity, and the cast members become heroes of Art (with a capital "A").

Robbins deftly achieves poignant humanizing and dramatization of an important issue, allowing the themes to lay just beneath the surface of the plot.

Instead of preaching to the audience, Robbins brilliantly demonstrates the corruptive effect of politics on Art and the power of Art to directly influence the world.

Robbins avoids over-romanticizing the creative process and art by dodging the temptation to create shallow stock characters. Politicos like Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusak), are not stereotypical bad guys, and artists like ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray) are deeper than the historically brave pioneers of the age.

The two sides operate under different ideologies, and "Cradle Will Rock" is the story of these two worlds colliding.

As an artist himself, Robbins favors the plights of the actors and other artists in the face of an oppressive bureaucracy. He brings the film to a triumphant resolution where the actors defiantly and illegally put on the play in another theater.

The scene is intercut with the destruction of a controversial Diego Rivera mural, destroyed by order of Rockefeller - the painting's original commissioner.

In one instance, Art has won.

In the other, it has lost, demonstrating the constant tug-of-war between freedom of expression and censorship, between politicians and artists, between progress and regression.

In addition to a masterful thematic inundation, nearly all of the cast is superb and each worthy of the complex material in "Cradle Will Rock." Vanessa Redgrave as art-loving and bubbly socialite Countess La Grange is particularly wonderful and Tony-award-winning Cherry Jones as the Federal Theater Project's director has proven herself to have an impressive screen presence.

"Cradle Will Rock" serves as a reminder to the importance and power of Art and how its collision with politics (most aptly demonstrated by the film's last shot) is just as relevant today as in the 1930s.

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