Review of Tim Robbins’ Embedded

The Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are proving to be as good to the theatre as they have been to America’s major arms dealers.

With Guantanamo and Stuff Happens already thriving in London, Tim Robbins has brought his critically panned Embedded to town, where its audience is better prepared to hear its message than were the victims of CNN and Fox Television in America. Like Hare’s Stuff Happens, Embedded is didactic and episodic. There is no story. There are no real characters. Even Iraq is not real – Robbins calls it Gomorrah, perhaps reflecting the American religious right’s conception of that “evil” country.

Embedded follows the war from its preparations – the salesmanship that made it acceptable to much of the American public – through the invasion and its bloody aftermath. Where Stuff Happens is semi-documentary in style, Embedded is straight farce. Seven masked caricatures of Bush advisors, who include Rum Rum, (Donald Rumsfeld) and Wilsie (Paul Wolfowitz), chant incantations to the University of Chicago guru of neo-conservatism, Leo Strauss. Luckily, the programme notes explain who Strauss was. An excerpt from an article in the June 2004 Harper’s Magazine says: “One of the great services that Strauss performed for the Bush administration [was] the provision of a philosophy of the noble lie, the conviction that lies, far from being simply a regrettable necessity of public life, are instead virtuous and noble instruments of wise policy.” The lies are regurgitated by a supine press.

Vignettes take us through the experiences of soldiers and the journalists who are embedded with them. Apart from Colonel Hardchannel – who drills, abuses and censors the embedded hacks – most of the American soldiers on stage are decent men and women in an indecent predicament. One of them weeps after killing a family at a checkpoint. One – a fictional Jessica Lynch called Jen Jen Ryan – tells her family that her Iraqi doctor saved her life, and that she was not tortured as the Pentagon said she was.

The press, however, are less introspective. They repeat Pentagon lies with brainless enthusiasm. One TV reporter stands apart, contradicting his colleagues’ gung-ho propaganda with original reporting. Colonel Hardchannel barks at him: “This is not a TV show, it’s a war.” But it was a TV show – battlefield drama for the cameras, as long as the cameras were pointed where the Pentagon wanted them to be.

The audience at Riverside Studios was sympathetic, but most appeared to expect more from the man who wrote the film Bob Roberts, and has challenged the corporate bosses of Hollywood. But the cast – who call themselves the Actors’ Gang – and Robbins himself are doing more to challenge the political insanity that governs Washington than are the media, whose job that ostensibly is.

Embedded, Riverside Studios, London