Do leftists have a sense of humor? That’s just one of numerous questions writer-director Tim Robbins asks in the seriocomic, mostly true story, Cradle Will Rock, which examines the combustible mixture of art, commerce and politics during the Great Depression.
A young Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) commissions Diego Rivera (Reuben Blades) to create a mural for the lobby of the striking art deco building bearing the Rockefeller name. The Mexican muralist (who forever altered the DIA three years earlier) is chosen after several big-name artists turn Rockefeller down, but it’s still a risky choice. Rivera’s Marxist politics are interwoven into his art and life, and this mixed marriage to über-capitalist Rockefeller can only end in an acrimonious divorce.
Robbins uses the Rockefeller-Rivera brouhaha mostly to highlight the way America’s titans use art to legitimize themselves. Through the able aid of Mussolini’s ingratiating emissary, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), they are also able to purchase cultural artifacts and sell raw materials to Italy (and even Hitler’s Germany) before the United States enters World War II.
Even though Robbins’ fascinating story pinpoints much of the hypocrisy of the time, the film’s real focus is the Federal Theater, a division of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. Head administrator Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) believes in a populist theater, but finds her beloved institution under fire during conservative-led congressional hearings.
Meanwhile, Marc Blitzstein’s (Hank Azaria) heartfelt ode to the proletariat, a musical called The Cradle Will Rock, is becoming the latest ego-expanding Federal Theater production for maverick director Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen). Robbins is best when portraying the tenuous state of New York’s creative community, particularly the position of struggling actors such as Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), who get caught in the shifting political currents.
Cradle Will Rock captures an incredibly vibrant moment in history, but Robbins tries to explore everything that was going on, and the result is a 132-minute film with so many plots and subplots that characters often come off as political cartoons instead of real people.
But he does bring up some important and thorny questions: Just because someone pays you to create your art, do they have the right to tell you what to do? Does putting art – or ideology – in the marketplace turn everyone into a whore? Despite the evidence, Tim Robbins wants to believe that not everyone is for sale.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].