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High-caliber cast heads Tim Robbins' unusual character study

Cradle Will Rock
Starring: Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Angus MacFadyen, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Jamey Sheridan, John Turturro, and Emily Watson
Screenplay: Tim Robbins
Producers: Jon Kilik, Lydia Dean Pilcher, and Tim Robbins
Director: Tim Robbins
MPAA Rating: R for nudity, sex, language, violence, and mature themes

Cradle Will Rock is one of those rare films which sets out to entertain us by teaching us a (mostly) true story from the 1930s social upheaval period in the United States. Rare because it's set in the middle of the Great Depression and before World War II. And rare because it succeeds so well at entertaining. When was the last time you saw a film set in the 1930s that ended happily? Unusually, this is one period of time which tends to be ignored by history teachers in high school (I know for a fact that my teachers jumped straight from 1929 to 1939 within a week). The story Robbins tells here is unique because it was a major turning point in America's workforce and yet hardly anyone knows about it. Ask any history teacher, and they probably won't know about it either.

Beginning with an extended text piece detailing the state of America's workforce and rise of unions, Cradle Will Rock establishes its basic mission: to tell the story of the Federal Theatre Project, funded by the Works Progress Administration. The Federal Theatre Project was a program designed to bring quality performances to the lower classes in America for reasonable prices. Led by the strong-willed Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), the FTP was responsible for providing several thousands of jobs to out-of-work theater professionals. Unfortunately, the program has its opponents, including Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), a clerk working for the FTP directly. Huffman's concerned that the program has become a playground for communists. One play, in particular, becomes the target of Huffman's work, called "Cradle Will Rock." Dealing with relevant issues of the time, the musical was viewed by many as a work of slanderous, anti-government propaganda. Written by playwright Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), it earned the approval of Flanagan and was given the green light.

The green-lighting of this play sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to a climactic scene of doing what is right versus doing what the law says. The film is more of a series of events, pieced together by Robbins' editor. You don't necessarily watch Cradle Will Rock--you experience it. There is no plot that goes from point A to point B to point C. It's more or less just a few subplots thrown together to create the main plot. Yet, Robbins knows that the success of this type of film depends not on the overall subject matter, but the small details. One subplot involves a growing love between two loners trying to counter the FTP's work. Another allows us to watch Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen) and his producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) attempt to produce the musical without much of a budget. The most interesting, however, is Flanagan's trials with the Federal Government as she begins to be suspect of communism due to her choices in entertainment.

Directed by Tim Robbins, Cradle Will Rock has the look, feel, and authenticity of the 30s that it completely captures the attention. With so much accuracy, you can virtually be immersed in the decade and see what it was like to live back then. That isn't to say Robbins sticks to the truth 100%. On the contrary, he conjures up fictional and historical figures and mixes them together. After all, it is "a (mostly) true story." It doesn't really matter either. Robbins wants to show what may have been the turning point in theater becoming a truly independent process (theater, not film). In the final scene, Robbins does push it a little too much, parading the "opinion" that this singular event caused the liberation of theater from controlling corporations. It's heavy-handed, but at least it has an opinion.
This type of storytelling does put a lot of pressure on the actors, since it is up to them on whether or not we are interested. And overall, the cast is more than up to the task. Emily Watson does a credible job portraying an actress who appeared and then disappeared shortly after her performance in the musical. It's not her best performance, but it's a good one. Joan and John Cusack both give very good performances, particularly Joan who has more complex emotions to deal with. Angus MacFadyen is superb as Orson Welles--he doesn't impersonate, but adds his own energy to the role. Vanessa Redgrave is also terrific as an easily excitable woman who thinks the backstage antics of the cast is more interesting than the actual performance. Susan Sarandon is also good, as is Ruben Blades, her pro-communist artist/friend. John Turturro, a specialist in character acting, is effective by becoming completely immersed in the role. But there's only one Oscar-worthy performance here, and that comes from relative-newcomer (and Broadway star) Cherry Jones. Jones amazingly steals every single scene she is in. Her fight to save the F.T.P. in the courtroom is nothing short of brilliant. In a cast full of well-known cast members, Jones surpasses all of them with a bright and cheerful performance.

Cradle Will Rock is rated R for nudity, sex, language, violence, and mature themes. The film does have its fair share of flaws, but those can be easily dismissed in the overall view. The performances are all good and the direction is strong. The use of visual metaphors is nice (even understated), as is the surrealistic elements (Azaria imagines his dead wife and Bertoldt Brecht commenting on his musical). The film is original and never once caters to the typical ways of plotting a film. Everything fits together when viewed as recreation of the Depression era. It's not groundbreaking, but it's certainly a breath of fresh air.

***1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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