The Art of Confrontation

Tim Robbins has never been afraid of engaging an enemy.

He wants to agitate. He wants you, as his hero Joe Strummer sang, to smash up your seats and rock to his beat.

By placing obsequious journalists at the heart of his Gulf War II satire, Embedded, Robbins is sending up a flare for the First Amendment. Once our eyes, ears and mouths (read: reporters) are successfully controlled, how long until every aspect of our lives are intruded upon?

His battle cry stems from an incident at the 75th Academy Awards that triggered a curse upon his and Susan Sarandon’s house. After they pulled up to the ceremony in matching his-and-her hybrids, and flashing peace signs, they were besieged with hatred, even labeled traitors. Sarandon was subsequently barred from delivering the keynote speech at a United Way event, and a 15th-anniversary screening of Bull Durham at the Baseball Hall of Fame was canceled because of Robbins’ participation. When the war spread to other family members — a son and nephew were harassed — the fight became personal, and Robbins sat down to map his counterattack.

As of the beginning of October, plans on where his Embedded assault was to be staged were being kept highly guarded, with the initial mid-November opening in Los Angeles postponed. Robbins then went on the Letterman show to plug Mystic River and just happened to mention that, with a little luck, the play would open in New York in November. In fact, the play premiered here in Los Angeles, on November 15, and has yet to open in New York. A call placed to the Gang’s offices the following day confirmed the confusion surrounding the production: “Nobody here knows what’s going on with it.”

Although he’s been accused of being controlling and impulsive, there are reasons for these behaviors: fanatics, right-wing protesters and John Ashcroft among them — exactly the kind of threat to an open society that Robbins takes on in Embedded.

By utilizing the Gang’s familiar commedia dell’arte style, Robbins barrages the audience with a mélange of Iraqi War re-enactments which are designed to make us feel threatened. And, in that sense, the scale of the hyperbole is no different from the Fox News ticker, only the message is inverted. But do we feel endangered when we leave the theater, worried that Big Brother is closing in? Or do we feel we’ve merely witnessed a strong personal attack? Are we affected enough to join Tim’s War, or sufficiently aggravated by the play to defend his enemies? Or do we simply withdraw from the growing chaos which involves us all?

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