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May 19, 1999 2:00 AM
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CANNES '99 REVIEW: Tim Robbins' Ambitious and Masterful "Cradle"

CANNES '99 REVIEW: Tim Robbins' Ambitious and Masterful "Cradle"

by Stephen Garrett


Handsomely ambitious and a masterful leap forward in the director's own political cinema, Tim Robbins' "The Cradle Will Rock" was ecstatically received at its first public screening today (Tuesday), with "bravos," whistles, and cheers echoing within the cavernous, capacity-filled 2,400-seat Grand Theatre Lumiere. The dense, muscular production, sprinting through its 133-minute running time, breathes life into its 13 principal characters with a nimbleness and self-assurance that turns a study of the end of government-funded national theater in the 1930s into vast, rousing entertainment. A dissatisfied mumbling from certain journalists who mingled after the screening hints that the film may divide critical opinion, but "Cradle" certainly proved itself to be a brilliant crowd-pleaser and arguably the strongest entry to have played in competition.

Robbins (who won Cannes' top acting prize in 1992 for "The Player") once again proves his mettle as both director and writer with "Cradle," topping his more intimate "Dead Man Walking" and satirical "Bob Roberts" with a richness and complexity that keeps his story earnest and sober without sacrificing a loose, exaggerated humor that punctuates (and ventilates) the kinetic sturm und drang of his narrative steamroller. One slight, almost naive weakness to the overall film is Robbins' blind devotion to the theater as an uncompromising, cathartic vehicle for big-picture concepts like Truth and Humanity, as though the stage were the only honest forum for learning about, and preaching, concepts like justice, morality and civil duty. But his portrait of the moral twilight that compromises the integrity of both government sponsorship and private patronage, as well as the specter of communist witch hunts, help to counteract the seeming simplicity of the theater world's artistic purity.

Loosely based on fact and set in New York circa 1936, "Cradle" gets its title from a new musical about a labor revolt against big business' exploitation of workers, composed by starving artist Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) whose two muses include his dead wife and Bertolt Brecht. Enthusiastically embraced by theater producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and mercurial directing wunderkind Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen), the play goes into production with stagehand-turned-actress Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) as its anxious star. At the same time, the Federal Theater Project, headed by Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), finds itself both flush with success as its productions play to 25 million people throughout the country, and on the brink of oblivion when FTP employee Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusak) complains to a Congressional committee that the organization is unAmerican, subversive and in need of reform.

Meanwhile, in the upper stratosphere of Gotham's high society, oil magnate Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) plays modern-day Medici to Mexican agit-prop painter Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades), whom he commissions to create a huge mural for the lobby of the recently-built Rockefeller Plaza. And Italian cultural emissary Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon) tries to white-wash Mussolini's growing fascist movement by selling DaVinci's to industry leaders like steel tycoon Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) in return for providing resources to strengthen Il Duce's country. As the government tightens its noose around the FTP and locks the doors on Welles and Houseman, the "Cradle" players are forced to scramble and find a different theater in which to perform their production on it opening night, while Rockefeller has to contend with Rivera's stubborn insistence on including Lenin's face in his mural as well as navigating the choppy waters of sponsoring important work by political artists.

Robbins especially makes room to depict more modest lives, like ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray) and his dying vaudevillian world, as well as second-string actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro), barely scraping by on enough money to support his wife and four children. It is through these stories and their resonance within the larger context of the film's plotting that "Cradle" takes on epic dimension, becoming almost operatic and, with a sublime final shot that encapsulates the period film's vital, urgent relevancy, a testament to the ultimate power of art, and particularly freedom to express that art, as a form of human salvation. There is a tendency for Robbins to indulge his players occasionally, especially with Macfadyen's over-the-top Welles lampoon, but otherwise the majority of performances are refreshingly warm and alive. The rare example of a Hollywood movie that tackles a sociopolitical multinarrative and actually makes it a pleasure to watch, "Cradle" is brassy, high-charged filmmaking.

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