Embedded, written and directed by Tim Robbins, is a play that examines the War in Iraq through its key players: the Bush officials who concocted it, the embedded journalists who covered it and the soldiers who fought it. The play opened in 2003 at the Actor’s Gang Theater in Los Angeles. From there it went to The Public Theater in New York for a four-month run, and then on an eight-state national tour. The March 29, 2004, In These Times featured a scene from the play. Robbins has now turned Embedded into a film and released it on DVD (www.embeddedlive.com). In These Times talked with him in early June.
What are you hoping to accomplish with this release?
Robbins: That more people get the chance to see it. We got an amazing response wherever we performed the play, despite the fact that it wasn’t receiving any kind of support in the press.
From the start it was a word-of-mouth phenomenon. In L.A. we sold out an eight-week run in two days, which never happens. We wound up extending it for four more months. In New York we were lambasted by the critics. And people still came and we sold out for four months.
It was the same when we went on a tour of eight states in the fall. People came and gave standing ovations. It was the reaction we got from military families, soldiers and war journalists who had just returned from Iraq. It was their enthusiasm, their support, that gave us the mandate to film the show.
It was filmed on the stage of the Public Theater in New York?
Robbins: Yes. I wanted to shoot it with the energy the show had, the rock ‘n’ roll, the rudeness, the boisterousness. That’s why I put 360 degrees of cameras so you see the audience in the shots and I put seven mikes in the audience and a mike on every actor. It has more of a feeling of a rock ‘n’ roll show than a play. We were also able to give documentation of sources, which was the one thing we were never able to do in the live show. People would say, “Oh my God, that’s absurd.” And I wanted to scream, “It’s sourced.” Now in the movie, I get to source the dialogue.
Ben Brantley of the New York Times described Embedded as “presenting a United States in which not only war, but also the reporting of it is carefully engineered by an elitist Washington cabal.” Attacks from the right are one thing, but how does one deal with ridicule from the “liberal” media?
Robbins: Did you put quotes around liberal? [Laughs.] It’s nothing new for me. You get thicker and thicker skin and you come to expect this stuff. When I told the cast we were moving to New York, I said, “The good news is that we were invited by the Public Theater, the bad news is that we are not going to get one good review.” I knew it going in.
You don’t go into the backyard of the media and tell them they were full of crap during the war and expect a nice warm hug in return. The elite are very sensitive about their role in society and they don’t take well to criticism.
In a couple of reviews there was some talk of me “preaching to the choir.” That always made me laugh. First of all, the choir was way out of tune before the war. They were singing all over the place. Half of the audience we were performing to were liberals who supported this war. You could feel this palpable tension in the house. What they expected was the Bush-bashing thing that made it simple, black and white – Bush is an idiot, let’s all laugh. Look at how smart we are.
That’s not what this play is about. It is about everyone’s involvement. It’s about asking them to feel compassion for the soldiers. It’s about asking them to think twice about their own complicity, when they were being convinced by CNN and the New York Times that this war was a good idea. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and I don’t blame them for being uncomfortable. They should be uncomfortable.
By distributing Embedded on DVD, are you trying to go around the theatrical world and critics?
Robbins: No, not at all, it’s never hurt this project to have bad reviews. In going to DVD, I was very interested in what Robert Greenwald did with his documentaries. He reversed the model, reversed the paradigm. First he distributed independently, then, through the course of people’s interest, he wound up in movie theaters. I don’t think I ever want to be in movie theaters, but I do like the idea of going backwards. I like the idea of saying that we are going to offer it exclusively to Netflix and you can buy it on the Web site (embededdedlive.com), and we’ll see what happens. I didn’t want to just give it away to a distributor and leave it in someone else’s hands. Throughout the process I have been actively involved in helping it find its audience. I’ve been trying to reach out to Web sites and opinion makers and magazines like In These Times to create grassroots distribution.
In a speech to the National Press Club in 2003, you asked, “In the midst of all this madness, where is the political opposition? Where have all the Democrats gone?” Have you found any answers?
Robbins: [Laughs.] I still am looking for them. I would love to see a strong gutsy opposition arise, but I think we are going to see the Republicans self-destruct before that happens. The power structure is so ingrained in Washington. It seems like very few people are there for the public’s interest. We should expect more from our leaders, set the bar a little higher, so that we can gather inspiration and excitement and support from our leaders based on them doing really progressive things for the people
The good news is more and more people are realizing that grassroots organizations, community organizing and Internet distribution of literature and entertainment and news offer an alternative that is more connected to the needs of the people than any mainstream newspaper or magazine or Washington politician.
Hopefully, at some point the politicians will follow the people. All great changes happen that way. I can’t think of one movement that started with politicians. If the politicians realize that there is this massive movement out there that has rejected this status quo, mind numbing, entertainment journalism, then maybe we will see some change. Maybe we will see some media reform, which is direly needed.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.