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Cradle Will Rock

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Cradle Will Rock

Starring: Emily Watson, Hank Azaria
Director: Tim Robbins
Rated: R
RunTime: 132 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In a film which opened a few days after this one, Chen Kaige's "The Emperor and the Assassin," the titled emperor of the Qin kingdom of ancient China (Ying Zheng) tells his mistress (Lady Zhao) that they were happier in the old days when they were poor and hungry and relished the times they rolled in the haystacks. This from an emperor, no less! He may have been confusing youth with poverty, but not entirely. When you're struggling but not reduced to begging, you're more likely to be committed to a genuine, worthwhile cause than when you're rolling in gold simply soaking up life's material pleasures, although since the finish of the Age of Aquarius there seem to be no more social movements that have captured the hearts of large groups of people in the U.S. or elsewhere in the West.

But during the Depression, when so many people were out of work that you did not have to feel like a aberration to be similarly unemployed, politically conscious Americans could join in a crusade just like the 19th century French canonized in the Broadway musical "Les Miserables." The people who felt that their privation was largely the result of their exploitation by the big industries like steel backed by right- wing newspapers like the Hearst chain could affiliate with the labor union movement or move even further to the left and identify with communism. Their insurgence led to congressional investigations, notably the Dies committee, which sought to investigate the operations by subpoenaing individuals to testify about their possible connection with the Soviet Union or with domestic radicals. Like the late sixties and early seventies, the thirties was a politicized era, causing people to engage themselves in fervent discussion, particularly about the fascist programs and politics of Spain, Italy and Germany.

"Cradle Will Rock" takes place during this agitated time in America's history, and while many events and persons are added to the plot of the 132-minute movie written and directed by actor Tim Robbins, the incidents are largely true. Because the story is loosely constructed, ultimately bringing together what appear to be diverse stories with little connection, the movie may be a hard sell for a public that largely demands easy-to-follow, tightly plotted tales. The rewards of watching the movie are many, not the least being that Robbins shows those of us who did not live through such polemical eras what it means to be connected to events larger than our own immediate families; what it's like to discuss and act upon political causes more dramatic than the quotidian races between today's often tweedledum- tweedledee political parties.

Robbins uses as his metaphor the huge canvas on which Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) paints a mural in Rockefeller Center depicting his view of major events transpiring during this century. The mural is commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) at a price of $21,000, and though Rivera is a well-to-do communist, he leaps on the project as an opportunity to construct such unexpected images as a portrait of Lenin--to Rockefeller's disgust.

We observe Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) who is sitting on a park bench in 1936 composing a radical musical called "The Cradle Will Rock," while being advised by the ghostly presence of Bert Brecht. At about the same time, a homeless waif, Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) is wandering the streets about New York's theater district offering to sing a song for a nickel while desperate to become an actress in these difficult times. An astonishing range of characters of all polemic stripes is introduced including a ditzy socialite, Countess La Grange (Vanessa Redgrave); Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), a clerk in a government employment office who is rabidly anti-communist; steel magnate Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) whose social circle includes conservative newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter); a passionate director of theater pieces, Orson Wells (Angus Macfadyen); a ventriloquist, Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray) who blames radio-based communists for destroying his vaudeville career; a Jewish Italian fascist, once Mussolini's mistress, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon); and the head of the government's Federal Theater program which gives jobs to unemployed actors, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones).

Essentially a history lesson taught by a truly interesting professor, the film moves swiftly along, honing in on the lives and concerns of these diverse New Yorkers, interpreting their troubles and showing all seek in their different ways to resolve their dilemmas. While the quandary faced by magnate Gray Mathers, which is dealing with a threatened steel strike, is a different matter from the predicament of Olive Stanton, who is not eligible for an acting job because she was never employed on the stage, each is consumed with a passion to make life conform to his or her hopes and partisan passions. The most involving scenario takes place inside the theater which is stage Blitzstein's radical play, a play which, in effect, states that "when the wind blows the cradle will rock"--or, when the revolution comes, the foundations of government will fall. Barred on federal order by soldiers surrounding the theater, the thesps take their fight to the streets and ultimately perform their piece before a cheering crowd of like-minded folks.

Robbins' film is an intrepid one, a daring venture into cutting-edge celluloid by Disney studios, particularly when considering the view of Variety critic Emanuel Levy who states in his new book "The Cinema of Outsiders" that "mainstream movies are uneasy with displaying any extreme ideology, which means that their narratives are centrist...Hollywood films...don't want to offend any segment of their potential audience." If a large number of moviegoers stay away from "Cradle," more's the pity. You can count on your fingers the number of genuinely political films that the major studios have put out during the decade. (Sorry, those strictly action-adventure stories centering on terrorists do not count.) "The Insider" is one of them, yet another daring adventure Disney. Because "The Insider," who box office was somewhat disappointing, and "Cradle Will Rock"-- deal with political activity, both translated to the screen in striking manners-- we can only wonder why anyone who professes to be concerned about the machinations of business, government and labor can afford to stay away.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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