In May 2003 actor-writer-director Tim Robbins gathered up his pile of newspaper clippings and notes and set out tell the story of “our reckless neo-conservative administration’s march to war, of the unmitigated failure of our press, who acted more like courtesans than journalists, and also of the tragedy that results when young men and women are asked to engage violently with strangers in a hostile land.” The play he produced, Embedded, is a ninety-minute satirical look at the real and recognizable events of our war in Iraq. Masked caricatures of Bush Administration officials–Dick, Rum Rum, Woof, Gondola, Cove, and Pearly White–break out day planners and Palm Pilots to schedule war on Gomorrah, the oil-rich home of “the butcher of Babylon.” A “pretty little private” has her life saved by an enemy doctor, then watches in horror as her story is rewritten as one of capture and rescue. And all the while embedded journalists (with two exceptions from the alternative press) fail to report the true ugliness of war. When Embedded enjoyed extended runs in Los Angeles, New York and London, Robbins decided to make available on DVD a filmed performance of the play. Released on May 31, Embedded/Live is being promoted and distributed by Netflix, the world’s largest online movie rental service.
I’ve read that writing Embedded was a cathartic act for you, a way of channeling your anger about the war and about being attacked for having an opinion. How did journalists come to be the subject?
In the lead-up to the war, I was in London. I was reading the Independent. I was reading the Guardian. I was reading the Times [of London] too, which is a Murdoch paper. In the Times there was a rational debate going on in the editorial pages. Even a conservative columnist who was advocating for the war would at least represent the other side accurately. And so I had a lot better of a feeling than people in the States did. My perception was that there was a well-rounded debate. Of course, when I got back here I understood what everyone was afraid of. I think FAIR did a study–I’m not sure I’m getting the numbers right–but something like 500 guests on all these news shows were on advocating for the war, and in that same time period, three against. [FAIR’s 2003 study found that in the two-week period around Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation at the United Nations, 325 out of 393 on-camera guests featured in network news stories about Iraq were supportive of the United States’s war policy. The remaining sixty-eight represented skeptical or critical positions.] Clearly this did not represent the opinions of Americans at that point, who were split 50-50. So my frustration in getting back here, reading Judith Miller, seeing how the front page of the New York Times was basically running anonymous-source, uncorroborated stories on weapons of mass destruction. And then of course reading The Nation, as I always do, and The Progressive and In These Times and all these other journals that were saying something completely different.
So the debate in the British press was more nuanced?
It was more sophisticated, more adult, more democratic. The first thing I wrote was the Office of Special Plans thing. Those were easy for me to write. Satire is a good release for unvented anger. Then the Jessica Lynch story. When that happened, I was reading about it in the Guardian, which acted like a responsible news organization and sent a reporter to that hospital to talk to people. Whereas everyone in the United States just parroted what the Pentagon’s fantasy comic-book strip was.
Embedded packed houses for four months in both Los Angeles and New York but was not critically acclaimed. Why do you think the play was embraced more warmly by audiences than by critics?
It was embraced by audiences because it was telling a story that was not being told anywhere else. It was not being told in the news media. It was not being told in the satire that they watch. It was not being told in the drama that they watch. [Embedded] was hardcore, honest, I think courageous, because we were telling this story way before any of these facts came out. In fact we were representing onstage what hadn’t been printed yet in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Basically [because of] what I experienced in LA, selling out in two days in an eight-week run, which never happens in Los Angeles, I knew we’d be fine in New York. I knew it was a word-of-mouth thing. I knew we wouldn’t get any good reviews, and I told the cast that before we left. The energy in the room was great. It wasn’t preaching to the choir, either. There were people who I think really hated it. And the choir by the way was singing out of tune, because there were an awful lot of liberals who supported this war. So I’m not sure who the choir is. I think that’s one of those phrases that people use when you do something of social content. It’s a way to diminish your effort. You’re just preaching to the choir. Even if it was true, it’s something that they never apply to any other genre. For example, if everyone in the audience is a lover of action movies, aren’t you just preaching to the choir when you do a good action movie?