Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Cradle Will Rock

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Opening with the unsettling disclaimer "A (mostly) true story," Tim Robbins' ambitious, evocative, deeply flawed period piece Cradle Will Rock brazenly cuts through American cultural history and splices the pieces into a politically loaded celebration of creative will in the face of oppression. A return to the deft, Altman-esque ensemble work and unabashed agitprop that marked his incisive directorial debut (Bob Roberts), Robbins' charged portrait of NYC artists during the Great Depression is by turns exhilarating and overwrought. Though centered on the struggles of Orson Welles and his production troupe to stage Marc Blitzstein's eponymous musical for the Federal Theater, the film crams a number of thematically related subplots—some invented, others out of chronology—into one tumultuous year. In doing so, Robbins skillfully pegs the heightened political climate of the time while trivializing Welles' preternatural genius, sometimes at the expense of truth, leaving Welles (Angus MacFadyen), Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), and producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) to bicker like children over the play. Cradle Will Rock (where's that definite article?) follows other plot strands of varying interest, each at least partially redeemed by Robbins' gift for sketching vivid characters and some superb performances. Foremost among them are those of Cherry Jones, remarkably poised as Federal Theater head Hallie Flanagan, who took a resolute stand in opposing congressional allegations of Communism; Ruben Blades as exiled Mexican painter Diego Rivera, who defied Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) by honoring Lenin in a mural commissioned for the new Rockefeller Center; and the wonderful Bill Murray, who redeems a misconceived role as a right-wing ventriloquist assigned to teach his craft to two inept proteges (Tenacious D's Jack Black and Kyle Gass). But nothing can redeem Robbins' appalling, disingenuous treatment of Welles himself. Not only did he reportedly avoid reading the director's own 1984 screenplay on the subject, but he also has the gall to depict the 22-year-old wunderkind as a boorish, boozing lout. For all its admirable qualities—a great cast, flavorful period touches, strong political urgency—Cradle Will Rock remains rotten at its heart.