Whenever politicians spout high and hallowed tributes to America's greatness, we must remember the shadow side of this grand democratic experiment. Writer and director Tim Robbins (Bob Roberts, Dead Man Walking) has created a sprawling portrait of New York City in 1937, a time in the midst of the Depression when the gap between the rich and the poor was wide and deep. Unions took up the cause of the downtrodden while big industrialists found new ways to make money. And on the political front, right-wingers began their crusade against Communists.
This drama mixes a wide crosscut of historical personages with fictional characters. At the hub of the proceedings is the story of how director Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) of the Federal Theatre Project tried to mount a controversial musical about prostitution and strikes written by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria). Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), a poverty stricken young woman, wins the lead role in the musical, thanks to the intervention of actor John Adair (Jamey Sheridan). Aldo Silvano (John Turturro) is thrilled to be acting in this production, especially since his well-to-do Italian relatives have cut him off due to anti-fascist sentiments.
In another part of town, Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), an Italian propagandist, is busy trying to raise funds for Mussolini. She pulls off a deal with Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), a steel magnate whose independent wife, the Countess La Grange (Vanessa Redgrave), spends all her time at the theatre. Meanwhile Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) is enraged by the politically radical mural painted by Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) in the new lobby of Rockefeller Center.
The most heroic figure in Cradle Will Rock is Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), the energetic and intelligent head of the Federal Theatre Project. Since it is part of the WPA (Works Projects Administration) funded by the government to create jobs, she comes under the grilling of a congressional committee headed by Representative Martin Dies (Harris Yulin). He is on a hunt for Communists in the arts world. His paranoia is shared by Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), a clerk in the WPA, and Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), a vaudeville ventriloquist.
Cradle Will Rock has the same liberal perspective as Ragtime, another ambitious, episodic, and thought-provoking canvas of an era filled with incisive social commentary. Milos Forman, the director of that 1981 film said: "You want to make people laugh and entertain them. On the other hand, you want to be part of the cleansing process of the human soul." Let's salute Tim Robbins for having the chutzpah to bring to the screen a film that cuts to the quick with its portrait of the shadow side of America where fear, greed, racial hatred, and power stifle those who believe in creativity and a fair share for all.