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By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Hollywood Renaissance man Tim Robbins (actor, producer, writer, director and impregnator of Susan Sarandon) has stepped back behind the camera for another button-pushing rumination on two of his favorite subjects -- art and politics. Though his latest film dives deep into the insular realms of theater, music and art, it feels far from self-indulgent thanks to a stellar, star-studded cast and a mesmerizing, multi-layered script.

Set during the late 1930s, The Cradle Will Rock pulls back the curtain on a series of interlinked storylines -- all related, in one way or another, to New York's vibrant pre-War arts scene. While the American populace struggled through the crippling Great Depression, we are informed in a pre-credit crawl, President Roosevelt signed into being the Works Progress Administration, an ambitious and diverse program designed to put the nation's unemployed back to work. One of the divisions of the WPA was the Federal Theater Project. Hiring unemployed actors, musicians and playwrights, and charging them with distributing theater to the masses, the Federal Theater Project was one of the most ambitious and controversial artistic endeavors of the 20th century. Assorted artists, celebrities and politicians (some real, some imagined) associated with this little-known segment of American history are the subject of Robbins' ambitious artistic kaleidoscope.

At the film's hub we have a young Orson Welles (Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen) trying to mount a production of the new musical The Cradle Will Rock with his notoriously inventive Federal Theater troupe. While the show's composer, Marc Blitzstein (a marvelously cast Hank Azaria), struggles to find artistic inspiration, Welles and his actors battle the creeping influence of government censorship. On the verge of war with Europe, but still wary of "The Red Scourge," Congress is whipping up a frenzy against all things vaguely socialist -- and The Cradle Will Rock's strong pro-labor union stance is just ripe for the suppressing. Welles' brilliant, bullheaded battle to bring The Cradle Will Rock to life backbones the film, and sets the tone for a series of "art vs. capitalism" parables.

Among the other literati, glitterati and cognizati floating through Robbins' Depression-era Manhattan are Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades, packing on the pounds and looking eerily like Anthony Quinn), who goes to work for famed industrialist Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) and soon finds himself engaged in a painter vs. patron battle of First Amendment freedoms and personal philosophies. There's also charming Italian propagandist Margherita Sarfatti (long-time Robbins squeeze Susan Sarandon) who sells European masterpieces to rich Americans to fund the fascist cause back home. Another cog in the WPA Theater wheel is boozy, has-been vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray, impressing yet again with another spectacular supporting role), who labors futilely to rid his theater of "Reds." While this colorful collage of artists fights their various creative, economic and political battles, Federal Theater Project head Hallie Flanagan (firebrand Broadway actress Cherry Jones) struggles to defend her fledgling organization against congressional censor.

Robbins has certainly picked himself a ripe time period for the exploration of artistic issues. The 1930s, it seems, were a glorious double-edged sword for American artists. For the first time in history, the American government funded and supported all branches of the arts -- everything from painting to children's theater was allowed to flourish. By its zenith, the Federal Theater Project had brought art and culture to more than a quarter of the American population. By the end of its short life, however, the FTP was torn apart by spurious accusation of Communist infiltration and became a beachhead for governmental censorship. "Government-sanctioned art" became an ugly watchword for the coming decades, and gave birth to such future travesties as the shutting down of Robert Mapplethorpe exhibits and Tipper Gore's record-labeling flap.

As with all multi-storied, ensemble-cast films, there are certain storylines that strike hard, and others that are quickly forgotten. Oddly, Susan Sarandon's role as the scheming but steadfast art dealer results in a dramatic dead end. Bill Murray's role as the past-his-prime vaudevillian, on the other hand, mixes the comedic and the dramatic for a powerful and poignant "end of an era" coda. Fortunately, Robbins has chosen to relate these (mostly) true stories in a raucous, entertaining manner. By packing his cast with colorful character actors (Joan Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, John Turturro and Emily Watson round out the main cast) and emphasizing comic mayhem over dour proselytizing, Robbins has created a vivid portrait of this exciting and dangerous time in American history when individual courage stood in the face of censorship. The result, particularly in the film's climactic staging of Welles' defiant Cradle Will Rock, is a jubilant, soul-stirring look at the unstoppable, immutable force that is art.

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