The War on Center Stage

The War on Center Stage

Tim Robbins discusses Embedded, his play based on the Iraq war.


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?

I guess people have higher standards for political art than for action movies.

Do they? Or does political art make them uncomfortable?

Well, maybe people want political art to be more universal.

Having [made political art] my entire life, “universal” reads to me “watered down.” It means I get off the hook as an audience member. It means I’m not being indicted by the play because it’s on a more general level about, conceptually, something I agree with, and I have nothing to do with the real ills that the play is based on.

One of the key propositions of the play–that the media gave in to the Administration and ultimately failed to be critical in the lead-up to and coverage of the war–has only gained validity with time.

And it’s something that, if you are a member of that media establishment, it’s the last thing you want to hear at an off-Broadway theater. You’re telling us, the bastions of journalism that we are, that we’re corruptible? Media people have very thin skin when it comes to criticism.

One criticism of the play is that it won’t “change minds.” Do you feel this is an unfair expectation?

That was never my motivation–to change minds, to change anything. To make people feel? Yes. To make people feel something for a character, that’s number one. I’m motivated to raise questions, and to present a piece of entertainment. And I stress that because it’s important, first, to find a way to make it palatable, whether it’s emotionally palatable or it’s satire or comedy. At the end of the day if you’ve raised a couple questions, then maybe people can take the process toward change. That’s completely up to the audience. We’re not doing mind control here. I mean, shit, talk to anyone who’s been in a relationship for many years, they’ll tell you there’s no way you can ever change anybody. I don’t think that’s ever the motivation. It really isn’t. I want people to feel something. At the end of this play, there would be people talking in the lobby. And we’d have talk-backs with journalists. People would get pissed and some of them would get in arguments, and that’s great. That’s what a play should do. That’s what a film should do. That’s what I hope Embedded does. People see it, some love it and some hate it, but you talk about it. Start a discussion of some kind.

How do you contend with this criticism that as a Hollywood actor you are not entitled to write about war?

What am I entitled to write about? What can I get permission from the right wing to write about? I really want to know.

How did you first become involved in political activism?

I grew up on King Street and Sixth Avenue in the 1960s and ’70s. So I was around Greenwich Village and the whole folk music scene at the time. That, combined with my parents making their children aware of what was going on at the time. Martin Luther King, civil rights movement, Vietnam War. Probably inherited it from my parents and furthermore from osmosis, walking the streets of the Village.

How do you see your role in the antiwar movement?

I don’t see my role as anything. I support a few organizations, but at the core I’m trying to do advocacy through my work. By writing, by directing, by acting, the choices I make. But I don’t see that as a role. The hard work is done by the people who do it every day–the people who do real advocacy and real on-the-ground, grassroots activism. Those are the people who have roles in causes. What I do, maybe draw some press to an event, is so easy compared to the work that others do.

Netflix will use members’ film rating and rental histories to promote Embedded, but I imagine there isn’t a large existing market for filmed theater performances. To what other movies will Embedded be likened?

I think Bob Roberts, my other movies. Probably Michael Moore’s movies. I don’t know what else they’re using. Dr. Strangelove, not that this is anywhere close to the kind of film that that was. [This is] part of the challenge. Just hearing about it, I’m not sure it’s something that I would want to see. Because you think of theater as, you have to be there for it to work.

Style-wise, it was shot more like a documentary. It’s clear you intended to capture the audience’s reaction as much as what was happening onstage.

You see the audience. You see the backstage stuff. Then we took two days where there was no audience there, and I put long lenses on the cameras and got close-ups like you would have in film, so they were cut with the shots of the audience. I wanted to make it look more like a filmed rock and roll show than a filmed play. And it is part documentary also in that most of the material is sourced material. I made up some things, some of the lines that the journalists say. But I was highlighting the news as I was reading it during the war. The line “If you don’t have goose bumps now, you’ll never have them in your life.” When I heard that I thought, thank you for the gift. That’s a great line for a play.

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