'Embedded' with the Enemy

We haven't yet seen much artistic expression emerging from the war on Iraq, but actor Tim Robbins' play, "Embedded," now at New York City's Public Theatre, gets this inevitable genre off to a rollicking start.

Robbins and his partner Susan Sarandon were thrust into the national spotlight last year after the Baseball Hall of Fame cancelled the 15th anniversary celebration of the film "Bull Durham," because of the couple's outspoken views on U.S. policy toward Iraq.

tim robbins
Tim Robbins
As Robbins later told the New York Times' Jason Zinoman, "People have been questioning my patriotism, and that gets your attention. I grew up in the streets of New York, so I think in a survival mode. If you attack me, I'm going to respond."

Fittingly for this prolific actor, producer, director, writer and musician, Robbins' response to his critics came in the form of art. "Embedded" is an anti-war satire that takes the audience on a wild ride that is equal parts creepy and funny. The play is dedicated to the Clash's Joe Strummer, and the noisy, high-energy feel is straight out of the punk era.

"Embedded," which Robbins wrote and directed, premiered Nov. 15, 2003 at the Actors Gang in Los Angeles, where Robbins is artistic director, and played to full houses throughout its run. Its current run at New York's Public Theatre coincides with Robbins' recent Academy Award for best supporting actor for his searing performance in "Mystic River." The actor's portrayal of Dave Boyle, a man suffering profoundly from childhood sexual abuse, is unforgettable.

When I spoke to Robbins at a party at the Sundance Film Festival before the NY opening, he was worried that the play wouldn't get the necessary exposure to have a good run. But the Academy Award took care of that, particularly when he got the chance to mention the play and his Actors Gang buddies to 43.5 million U.S. viewers.

Frightening Laughs

Says Robbins, "Satire should make you laugh and scare the hell out of you."

And scare the play does. The most frightening element of "Embedded" is its cabal of "chickenhawks," the men and one woman who have never been to war, yet send soldiers to invade an oil-rich Middle East country called Gomorrah. This collection of warmongers -- Woof, Pearly White, Dick, Rum-Rum and Gondola - are presented in eerie masks, and pay homage to Leo Strauss, the infamous conservative political philosopher who serves as the godfather of the neocons.

Known for rationalizing the "noble lie for the greater good," Strauss reportedly exerts broad influence over those still firmly in control of the Bush war apparatus. (As Arianna Huffington describes in her new book "Fanatics and Fools" (Miramax), "Strauss had a profound antipathy for liberalism and democracy and a deep mistrust of the people.")

Whether debating which of the various reasons for invading Gomorrah might "get the numbers up," discussing moving the date of the invasion so it doesn't conflict with the National Basketball Association playoffs, or joking how the war made it easy to "dodge the bullet" known as Enron, the rapid-fire dialogue marks the play's best writing.

In the meantime, the viewer experiences a sinking feeling of déjà vu, because based on what we now know about the rationale for invading Iraq, some of the outlandish lunacies articulated by these characters ring true. When the cabal debates when and if to have elections in Gomorrah, one member chortles, "Don't worry, we purged 50,000 voters in the Sunshine State," indicating that Gomorrah will be a walk in the park.

"Embedded" is filled with poignant scenes of troops leaving for war, coming back scarred, and lamenting the indiscriminate killing. The play's Jessica Lynch figure, Private Jen-Jen Ryan, periodically materializes lying on a white bed in center stage, representing one of the play's chief themes: the incredible pain of war combined with the absurdity of its propaganda.

Jen-Jen screams truths: "They killed my best friend and she left two children behind"; "They shot my boyfriend in the head"; while the military persists in trying to spin her experience. Jen-Jen insists the government has it wrong -- that the Iraqi doctor saved her life, not the soldiers who busted into the undefended hospital. Jen-Jen's parents tell their daughter they have been warned by the government that she will probably suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, in which the captive identifies with her capturers. She screams back, "I was there!"

The Press Passes

One of Robbins's chief concerns is the role of "embedded" journalists, and this issue is the most nuanced theme of the play.

Embedded's tone is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," which portrays the life and death seriousness of war as well as the absurdities of military sensibilities -- and with the new theme of embedded reporters trying to cover a war while military minders look over their shoulders.

Robbins told TimeOut New York's David Cote, "The media's... job is to keep government in check. When the government is being deceptive, I would think it is the press's job to call them on the mat on it and be unrelenting on it and demand evidence before we risk American lives."

The play's opening scene is of a group of embedded reporters marching, marking time, shouting in unison, to the overbearing Broadway show-tune singing Colonel Hardchannel: "Sir, I am a maggot journalist, sir."

The play also shows ethical journalists determined to get the real story out, as well as ass-kissing journalists serving as government mouthpieces. There appears to be a small role for NY Times reporter Judith Miller, who presented as truth the lies and distortions fed to her by Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress. The infamous photo op of Saddam's statue being pulled down (with the help of a truck) and by a number of Chalabi's men also gets a nod.

Wonder Boy

One wonders how Tim Robbins does it all. in addition to his work in movie and theater, he is lead singer for his own punk band, which performed to an enthusiastic crowd in Park City Utah, during Sundance Film Festival. This principled, versatile, hard-working actor enjoys the deep admiration of younger actors who are coming up in the ranks. Robbins never seems to rest on his laurels, rooted in the give and take of the creative process, and always eager to accept new challenges.

With the war in Iraq still front and center, Robbins' work may become the standard on which Iraq-inspired artistic expression is measured -- much as Apocalypse Now is the gold standard for films about Vietnam.

Embedded plays at the Public Theater in New York through April 11. For ticket information visit the website or call (212) 239-6200.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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